He already has an autographed Dave Stala jersey laying across his lap when the real deal walks through the door and into his Stoney Creek living room. Bearing gifts.
“I brought you another shirt,” the Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver says.
Jacob Rayner — he prefers Jake — isn’t complaining. Especially when the 17-year-old is told this is the game-worn jersey Stala wore in all his home contests this season.
“That’s awesome,” he says quietly, pulling the oxygen mask away from his face so he can be heard more clearly.
The visitor slides his way onto the couch beside his young host, pulls out a Sharpie and signs the present. Then lays it gently on top of the store-bought model.
What happens over the next hour might be the best work Stala ever does in football, no matter how many catches he hauls in or touchdowns he scores the rest of his career. It also demonstrates, in a visceral way, the power athletes possess to make people’s worlds better, if they choose to use it.
When he was five, Jake’s grandparents started taking him to Ticat games. Every time there was a game at Ivor Wynne, they’d find their seats in Section 26 under the press box and cheer wildly while enjoying what they called the Three Ps: Pizza, pop and popcorn.
Occasionally, they’d even take their passion on the road. More than a few times, Jake made it to Toronto to watch. He even attended Grey Cups in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto.
“He loved it,” his mom, Natalie, says. “It was his thing.”
He was never much of a player, mind you. A little on the small side, he gave it a go for a couple of years in minor football but found he enjoyed watching the pros do their thing far more than being wiped out himself.
So mom and dad knew it wasn’t a football injury that was causing him to complain about his right leg hurting at the beginning of 2010. Growing pains is what they figured was leading to the slight limp. They went to a doctor who recommended physiotherapy and began giving him exercises to work it out.
Thing was, many days the pain was so bad he’d call home from school and have to be picked up.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what this is, but this isn’t a pulled muscle,’ ” mom says.
A visit to a chiropractor friend led to an appointment with their family doctor, which led them down to McMaster emergency for tests.
That was March 8. A Monday as she recalls. It was just around 10:30 at night when the doctor called her into the office and said the words that made her world stop. Jake had Ewings Sarcoma. Cancer. It had already spread to his lungs and was now in the fourth stage....