You practice your hardest day in and day out. On the range, the putting green, the course, you somehow find the time to balance that hard work with your studies and traveling all over to different tournaments. Maybe you do it because you want to improve your game? Maybe you do it because you want to play golf for a big Division 1 college someday? Or maybe you just like playing golf and enjoy the scenery? Me, I am a terrible golfer. Y’all need caddies for your clubs, while I need someone to follow me and yell “FORE!” on the rare occasion I make contact with the ball. But I’m not here to talk about my golf.
Many of you will be playing in this year’s James A. Ragan Memorial down in Corpus Christi this coming weekend. In the past, I have often heard, “Who is this James A. Ragan, and why is this tournament named after him?” Well, my name is Mecklin, James’ older sister, and that is a question I am honored to answer.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve just turned 13 years old, you just finished 7th grade and you’re ready for summer. You are physically fit athlete, eager to take on the world, and you and your closest friends are more than ready for a summer of fun, with excitement of what your futures hold.
But then imagine that four weeks later you are diagnosed with cancer, and when you start 8th grade, you are bald, skinny and in a wheel chair. Now imagine that over the next seven years, eight of your friends die, not from random accidents but from various diseases or conditions. By the time you are almost done with your sophomore year of college all of your friends who shared your disease are gone. You are the only one left.
I am 25 years old, and I have never experienced anything like this. My parents are in their mid-fifties, and they have never experienced anything like this. But my younger brother, James A. did.
In 2006, James was diagnosed with a type of pediatric bone cancer called Osteosarcoma. At first, it was just in his left leg, and doctors had to remove most of the leg to save him. His dreams of becoming a Division 1 tennis player were torn away from him, but at least he would be alive. As hard as that was, about a year later, James learned that even the surgery would not save his life. The cancer had metastasized to his lungs, and he then underwent countless rounds of chemotherapy, experimental treatments, drugs and surgeries to his lungs, chest wall and diaphragm. It was as dark a time as I believe any child can have, but in the midst of all of this James made the most of his moments, and found ways to make the most of a horrific situation.
Perhaps most surprisingly, when James could no longer play tennis because he had most of his left leg cut out and replaced with metal parts, he decided to take up golf at the age of 14, which led to his relationship with the Legends Junior Tour (but more about that later).
Throughout everything he went through, James always maintained a smile, a hopeful attitude and worked tirelessly at school, golf, and cancer – especially cancer. Since 2007, James and I held annual fundraisers to raise money for cancer research, but each event was done individually and not as a foundation.
In 2010, we organized a non-profit called Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation (TOKC) to start and fund the Children’s Sarcoma Initiative at M.D. Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. TOKC committed to raise 1.5 million dollars, to be matched by M.D. Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, and the money would create a fund, which would award grants to support new research in pediatric bone cancer. We met that goal in 2014, the year James Arthur died.
James’ vision was a world without children’s cancer, and I and the rest of the TOKC board members, now more than ever, are determined to make that vision a reality. The most promising step in cancer research in recent years has been whole genome sequencing for adult cancers. As with other types of research, little work has been done in whole genome sequencing for pediatric orphan cancers due to cost. Yet genome sequencing is essential to providing the knowledge and understanding necessary for researchers to learn how to cure pediatric cancers. For that reason, TOKC’s newest project, The Childhood Genomic Research And Sequencing Project – because the key to curing pediatric cancer is within our GRASP. GRASP will provide longitudinal whole genome sequencing for pediatric orphan cancers, starting with medulloblastoma, pediatric bone cancers, and pediatric melanoma.
In addition, to help us remember James each year, we started the “Wingman” program. The issue of wings was always special to James because his thoracic surgeon had a unique method of making the incision so that the curved surgical scars across the back brought wings to mind. His pediatric patients always referred to them as “Angel’s Wings.” So, each year we have a special pediatric cancer patient – “James’ Wingman” – as our guest at all of our functions so we can always remember James and the reason why spreading awareness and supporting pediatric cancer research is so important.
Now, back to the LJT. Although tennis was James’ first love, golf quickly became his passion. He eventually said, “If I had known what a great game golf was, I’d never have played tennis.”
James threw himself into golf with relentless practice as well as reading and watching everything he could about golf. It wasn’t long before the default channel on our TV was the golf channel, James was telling us all about the history of golf, and we were all drinking Arnold Palmers on a regular basis. Certain aspects of golf came very naturally to James, and those that didn’t he worked very hard day in and day out to improve. In a very short period of time – about 3-4 years – James became a scratch golfer, and was playing tournaments around Texas, trying to become a Division 1 golfer. Out of all of the tournaments James’ played, the Legends Junior Tour events were by far his favorite. In spite of all of his medical care – surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation – he was an LJT Champion, winning the Jimmy Demaret tournament and qualifying for the South’s Jackie Burke Cup team. He even went on to play golf for Rice, a Division 1 school, for two years prior to his death. But becoming a champion is not why we remember James.
Throughout all of his trials, James always showed a love and respect for golf, a dedication to sportsmanship, friendliness, camaraderie and care and compassion for others, regardless of their station in life. He helps us keep in mind that no matter what troubles you think you have, if you look to your left and then turn to your right there are always people worse off than you that need and deserve your help.
James died February 17, 2014 – almost 3 years ago – and while he is no longer with us, his memory and his legacy continue on through the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation and events like the James A. Ragan Memorial.
I cannot thank Kellen and the LJT team enough for hosting this event, and each of you for participating. Best of luck to those of you competing in the James A. Ragan Memorial this weekend – give it all you’ve got! – and I look forward to meeting y’all in Corpus. Also a special thanks to the many generous donors taking part in the Birdie Eagle Program. Every birdie and eagle you make raises money to fund pediatric cancer research!
In continuing with the “Favorite Five” theme, here are a few of James’ favorite restaurants in Corpus Christi for y’all to try this weekend (in no particular order):
- Mamma Mia’s
- Andy’s Kitchen
- B&J’s Pizza
- The Yardarm
I’d like leave you with some advice from James:
“My life hasn’t always been fairways and greens – it’s been a little bit of army golf, we call it. Left, right, left, right, balls kind of going everywhere, and lots of trouble. But that doesn’t mean you give up or that you try to play the game any differently. You just try to figure out the best way to deal with it. You go forward and you swing hard to try to get it out of the trees. You have to keep moving forward and focus on the next shot in front of you.”
- James A. Ragan, 2013
James A.’s Big Sister