All it took was a 12-second video on Twitter to teach a bunch of Maryville (Tenn.) football players lessons in life.
A.J. Cucksey of Knoxville, a 7-year-old cancer patient wise beyond his years, shot the video a few weeks ago to wish the Rebels — especially defensive tackle Logan Justice, a family friend — good luck in their Class 6A quarterfinal against Bradley Central.
Maryville coach Derek Hunt repaid the kindness by inviting A.J. to the Rebels’ practice Tuesday, as they prepared for Friday night’s state championship game against Cane Ridge.
While there, A.J. shared some words of wisdom and the team presented him with a jersey (No. 1, same as quarterback Dylan Hopkins) and a football autographed by all the players and coaches.
“His favorite position is quarterback,” Hunt said of A.J. “He got to throw the ball with Dylan Hopkins. I got to introduce A.J. to our team, and talk about all the layers of his story.
“I asked him, ‘A.J., do you have any advice for our guys?’ His response was perfect: ‘Always try your best and never give up.’ I couldn’t have said it any better.”
The response didn’t surprise A.J.’s dad John. He knows the personality of his son, who has been battling brain cancer since he was 4. He saw him become an inspiration for the Knoxville Ice Bears a couple of years ago. He saw A.J. develop a relationship with former University of Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs, which has carried over to Dobbs’ move to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That story was recently told on the NFL Network.
“We’ve always preached that Cuckseys don’t say ‘I can’t,’” John said. “A.J. has so much energy. He doesn’t hesitate to get up in front of a team of older guys and try to give them some of the energy he has. He’s getting used to older people looking up to a little guy.”
Cucksey’s story hit home for Will Orren, a senior safety who lost his father to cancer when he was 9.
“When you learn about everything A.J. has gone through, you see what we’re doing isn’t that big of a deal,” Orren said. “If a tough practice is the worst thing we have, that’s not so bad.”
Hunt wasn’t the least bit concerned about A.J.’s appearance disrupting preparation for the biggest game of the season.
“Even though we get to play for a championship Friday night, in the grand scheme of things, that game means so little,” Hunt said.
“This was just one of those ways that we can help out someone else, and be there for someone else; and at the same time, learn from the situation. To be able to put a smile on A.J.’s face was worth it.”