Each of the six finalists for the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2015 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page. The winner will be announced February 1.
University: Auburn University
Vitals: 6-2, 201-pound junior wide receiver
Quick Hits: Each of the last two seasons Coates has emerged as one of the top deep threats in the country by averaging more than 21 yards per catch. … One of the top 25 wide receivers in the country coming out of high school, sat out his first year at Auburn with an injury and only saw limited duty his second year. … Lost his father at age 11 to an industrial accident. … Recently declared himself eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft. … Nominated for the 2014 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
When Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates saw 12-year-old Kenzie Ray sitting by herself after a game in 2013 as he left the stadium lockerroom, he didn’t know her story. But he knew that look in her eyes and the big-time talent in the midst of his breakout season didn’t hesitate to walk up and strike up a conversation. Out of that conversation he learned she was battling a horrible rare form of leukemia. She was much stronger than he imagined. And a wristband she gave him was the first step in what would blossom into a genuine kinship.
INSIDE THE STORY
Growing up in Leroy, Alabama Coates was not naturally drawn to sports. He was introduced to athletics by his father – first baseball and then later football.
But when his father was killed in an industrial accident at age 11, Coates’ journey became more difficult. But despite his own pain and suffering, he’s developed a personality that sees pain and suffering in others first.
And that night during the 2013 season, after a dramatic home victory over Mississippi State, he saw that look in a little girl from Tallassee, Alabama who has been an Auburn fan all her life.
Kenzie Ray was on the field night because, a cancer patient and rabid Tigers fans, she was invited to that game by the Auburn dance team.
The outcome of that night was the first step in what has blossomed into a two-way friendship where both parties, Sammie and Kenzie, share a unique bond that makes each a better and stronger person.
Diagnosed at age 11 with a rare disease that required a bone marrow transplant, nearly a month on a ventilator and a year of chemotherapy, the Ray family has been through more than most.
But her parents, Keisha and Tommy, use their daughter as inspiration. Kenzie gets part of her hope and inspiration to fight from Coates.
June of 2014 was a dark time for Kenzie and the Ray family. She was battling pneumonia and already was weakened by a recent round of chemotherapy so her immune system wasn’t working.
Doctors told the family she might not make it through the night. So Keisha called Sammie to give him the update. Three hours later he was at the hospital holding Kenzie’s hand and praying – assuring the family he believed she was going to make it.
“It makes me strong to see somebody like her, who has to fight for her life, when we take everything for granted. I really love her like a sister. I know I have to keep fighting for her because she’s fighting every day. I love to talk to people and make them smile, but when I saw her it was something different.” – Sammie Coates
“When I watch Sammie, it just makes me forget everything about what I’m going through, and the nauseousness. It makes me feel proud of him to go out there and wear my bracelet and try to win for his team. I think of him as my best friend … my hero.” – Kenzie Ray
“I honestly feel like God placed them in each others lives. There’s more of a connection there than just the little girl with cancer and the football player. It’s deeper, way deeper than that.” – Kenzie’s mother, Keisha Ray