Huntington coach Steve Muller, Russell Athletic’s Matt Murphy and Huntington Principal Brenden Cusack hold up the check (Photo: Ketchum)
The story could have been tragic, almost life shattering. Instead, it has brought together a community, lifted up a high school and, now, earned the 2016 Fight Like Dylan Award for Huntington (N.Y.) High School.
On Thursday, Russell Athletic awarded the sixth Fight Like Dylan award to Huntington’s football program in connection with Eli Mollineaux, the team’s 14-year-old member who suffered from Pearson Syndrome and was expected to die by the time he was in kindergarten. Not only had Mollineaux defied the odds with his life, he had infused all his teammates with so much more of it from his time as part of the Huntington football program.
“Its always difficult to choose the Fight Like Dylan Award,” Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, one of the Fight Like Dylan official selectors, told USA TODAY High School Sports. “You’re always excited because you want to celebrate champions in life, but the difficult part comes when you have 15-20 terrific stories. This year was no exception. But when you read the story about how Huntington rallied around Eli and didn’t let his negative circumstance hold them back but rally around him, and how the whole community rallied around him. It was a difficult circumstance, but it showed how people could come together.”
In September, Mollineaux scored a touchdown for Huntington while in his wheelchair in one of the season’s more striking moments, with everyone from teammates and opposing players to fans in on the act. You can see the entire touching moment play out from a first person view below. A month later, Mollineaux was gone, finally succumbing to myriad health issues brought on by Kearns-Sayre Syndrome, which is the adult evolution of Pearson Syndrome.
While Mollineaux didn’t finish the season on the sideline, his memory inspired Huntington’s quest throughout, with the team using the slogan “#bELIeve” to motivate themselves to compete at their best and always think positively.
As Dungy related, the experiences that Huntington’s players gained from playing with Eli, and then competing in his memory, will go far beyond the 2016 season.
“I remember our Super Bowl year in Indianapolis, we were playing Jacksonville and Reggie Wayne wins the game with a late touchdown,” Dungy said. “Waiting in the locker room was a call telling us that his brother had been killed in an auto accident. Reggie battled through that, continued to play and dedicated that season to his brother. That same season, Gary Brackett, our defensive captain, lost his parents to illness and lost his brother to leukemia despite giving him a bone marrow transplant. He had to continue to fight. When we were getting the Lombardi Trophy up on the stage, I was sitting there looking at Reggie and Gary and thinking, ‘If people only knew the whole story.’ It happens all the time, and to be able to celebrate a moment like this at Huntington High School is special for us.”
Huntington will be given a $50,000 grant for sports apparel and equipment that can be used to outfit any or all of the school’s athletic teams, particularly the football team that meant so much to Mollineaux.
And, in a final way, the celebration will paint another positive on a story that could have been only tragic, but was instead seen as the honor and gift that it truly was for all to compete alongside Mollineaux while they could.
“I think these experiences mean a lot in life,” Dungy said. “It’s rare for a team to go undefeated. You have ups and downs, losses, and you have to remind yourself that you have to grow from these things. When you see this play out in life, and for a community to say Eli’s battle is tough, and he did succumb to it, but we can build together and learn and grow from it. Taking that same lesson, it was not over, it was a setback but they refused to let it defeat them. That’s really a great thing to learn. In doing this whole process at All Pro Dad and Russell, there are so many places where this happens in sports and in life. To be able to really talk about someone who achieved something so special, that’s so neat.”