What made the meet-and-great especially exciting for Barnes was that he learned he’d be receiving the No. 10 jersey right off of Gordon’s back following the Bucs’ O-K Red Conference game against visiting Jenison on Friday at Buccaneer Stadium. But the jersey will be quite different than what the Bucs typically wear on game days.
Instead of traditional school colors of Blue and Gold, Grand Haven will don purple uniforms as part of its “Bucs’ Pride” game. Also, instead of Gordon’s name on the back of the jersey, the letters will read “Matt Barnes.”
Matt Barnes was Austin’s father who passed away from lung cancer at the age of 29 in May of 2010. His memory will be one of many remembered and celebrated along with those who are currently fighting cancer or have overcome the disease during the special event.
Through the sale of the purple jerseys as well as Bucs’ Pride T-shirts, organizers hope to present a significant donation to the Bluebird Cancer Retreat program in Spring Lake, as well the American Cancer Society.
“What the Bucs Pride fundraiser is going to do for Bluebird is support our enrichment center,” said Renee Denslow, Bluebird’s executive director. “We’ll have a space here in Spring Lake kicking off support groups and healthy living workshops targeted toward adults who have had a battle with cancer as well as with adults hope to avoid cancer. It will all be kicking off in October, and all the dollars Buc Pride gives to us stays in the community for emotional healing and support.”
Grand Haven hosted its inaugural Cancer Awareness Game in 2009, but a group of parents wanted to bring more structure to the event and turn it into a potential non-profit organization and an annual fundraiser for community programs. Three parents attended an informational meeting at Lowell High School during the summer, in attempt to gain ideas on how Lowell’s Pink Arrow Project has become so successful. Lowell was one of the first schools in West Michigan to host a cancer fundraiser at its own athletic event, when in 2008, its football team wore pink jerseys and raised money for the fight against cancer.
Marcie Lynch, one of the Grand Haven parents on the Bucs’ Pride committee, said their top focus is honoring the people affected in one way or another by cancer.
“Whether they’re wearing a purple shirt or not, or if they go to the game or not, regardless, we want these people to say that ‘Hey, these people care about me,’” Lynch said. “We really want to focus more on the kids and the people they are honoring on the back of their jerseys than raising money this year. But our goal is to build this up to like Lowell has done. It’s became a huge thing over there.”
From the early response throughout the community, Grand Haven is on its way at making a big impact. Lynch said they’ve already sold all 50 jerseys at $100 apiece. In the case of Gordon’s jersey, it was purchased by an anonymous buyer and donated back for a special momento for Barnes.
The T-shirt sales have also flourished with approximately 2,000 being purchased. Bucs Pride opened its own store on Washington Avenue in Grand Haven to sell the shirts, which went for $10 apiece or for $15 with a loved one’s name printed on the back. The storefront was donated by Pfaff Pharmacy and the T-shirts are sponsored by North Ottawa Community Hospital. Other sponsors include Grand Haven Plastics, Shape Corp., GHSP Contribution Committee, Shoreline Sport & Spine, and Meijer.
Friday’s special evening will begin at 6 p.m., when the gates to Buccaneer Stadium will open. Bucs’ Pride events start at 6:15 with a Parade of Survivors — an emotional walk around the track involving cancer survivors led by the Grand Haven players in their purple jerseys.
“Any cancer survivor can feel free to show up and be a part of it,” Lynch said. “They don’t have to be featured on the jerseys.”
At 6:30 p.m., Grand Haven players will meet the person honored on the back of their jersey, or the family who has lost a loved one to cancer, at the 50-yard line.
“We’re expecting it to be a very emotional night,” Lynch said.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m., then following the contest, the players will take their jerseys off and present them to each family. That’s when Barnes will surely be beaming ear-to-ear, said his mom, Kristen Barnes, a secretary at Lakeshore Middle School.
“To any 8-year-old, the varsity football players are like a movie star,” she said. “To be able to meet (Aaron) left a real impression on him.
“He’s said he wants everybody he knows to be at the game, and he may let his little sister (5 year-old Kendall) wear it later.”
Kristen Barnes said she’s been extremely fortunate to receive such strong support throughout the community since her husband’s passing, and Friday’s event is another example.
“I hope this brings a positive impression in my kids’ lives that we’re doing everything we can so maybe this doesn’t have to happen to another family,” Barnes said.
“Fortunately, Austin has been very resilient, my daughter too. Of course, I’ve tried to help them in any way, but they’ve relied on each other, a lot more than siblings at that age may show.”
Gordon said he and the rest of the Bucs understand the significance of the evening.
“It’s a big game for us, and it’s good for our team and the entire community,” he said. “It means a lot to us to be able to do something special for the people there. We want to make it a special night for the name on the front and back (of the jersey).”