Live Oak —
A promise was kept Saturday night at the Suwannee High School gym; a promise that filled the hearts of high school basketball players and those that filled the court side and stands as SHS basketball team manager Carl “CJ” McCray Jr. stepped on the court in the last minute of the game to help secure the win against Hamilton County.
What’s memorable about this and what makes it such an awe-inspiring story is that CJ is a special-needs teen.
On June 28, 1996, at the age of 11 months, CJ was admitted to the hospital with viral meningitis, followed quickly by a diagnosis of life-threatening hydrocephalus (pockets of fluid within the brain). Doctors asked his mother, Deborah Petersen, for permission to insert an emergency drainage tube to relieve the rapidly increasing pressure. During this procedure, CJ experienced complete cardiac arrest. Surgeons later told his mom they had lost him on the table.
Miracles happen every day and on that night, CJ was revived. Five days later he received a life-saving procedure to insert a shunt which redirects the fluid into the body so it can be reabsorbed. In the near 18 years that have since passed, CJ has come through many obstacles and procedures including emergency room visits, corrective surgery for his eyes and tubes placed in his ears. The shunt was replaced in a very painful procedure in 2011. He has undergone speech, neurologic and physical therapies and battles sleep apnea. But after hearing all this, you simply have to meet the joyful young man that most call “CJ.”
“He has a heart of gold. He's my miracle child and I thank God daily for keeping him on this earth with me,” said Petersen. “I am grateful for all the people who help me with him and love him just as much as I do.”
Memorable is an understatement
That night on the bench was just another great night for CJ. He kept excitedly saying, “Man, my sister even came tonight! I wasn’t expecting that,” referring to his appearance with the others during senior night earlier in the evening when he received a picture frame collage. He also said, “Man, I hope I get to go in. I know I can score.”
Meanwhile the gym was erupting with fans, but the clock was ticking down when the call came down the bench. CJ McCray Jr. was at the score table checking in.
The sellout crowd Saturday night was cheering as the Suwannee offense had one goal: Get the ball to CJ in the corner so he could score. So, they did. Unselfish pass after pass went to him, and after short jumpers, layup attempts and a very close three-point attempt, CJ scored the last four points of the game to take the Bulldogs home to victory.
The SHS coaching staff kept their promise to CJ.
Even the visiting Hamilton County Trojans basketball team showed great sportsmanship to allow him to score.
Some tears were shed, some screamed for joy and many held up hands with giant smiles. All tension from the earlier minutes seemed to be gone; suddenly all those disagreements on the court earlier had dissolved and faded as we all saw things with a different perspective.
Making the best of each challenge
As he stood with his family after the game, still wearing the number 14 jersey, CJ was asked how it was. After a short pause he simply said, “GREAT!”
Many Bulldog sports fans know CJ. He has served tirelessly as manager for both the football and basketball teams for years. His friends include not only the athletes, but most of the student body and the staff. A conversation with CJ just makes you feel good inside. You can find CJ on the sideline, or on court side, taking care of water bottles, towels, chairs, supporting his team and his friends. He carries equipment and supplies, is dependable, and is a tenacious manager. But the thing is, he genuinely enjoys it and is a part of the teams.
“He takes each challenge of his life and makes the best of it,” his mom said. “I’ve always told him he wasn’t handicapped and that he can do whatever he puts his mind to. When I look at him I feel so blessed to have a great son such as him. I love that miracle child, Carl McCray Jr., of mine. He is a great inspiration.”
“Watching my baby live his dream was wonderful. Words cannot express the joy I got to watch him on the court as a part of the team,” said Petersen. “A memorable moment for all of us.”
Congratulations, CJ, and thank you for your years of dedication and inspiration to the rest of us who are better for knowing you.