‘Claim the victory’: Facing pancreatic cancer, former Washington State RB Derek Sparks is trying to stiff-arm the biggest challenge of his life
Derek Sparks has shared two iPhone photos. One depicts an IV needle piercing his left forearm with white bandage tape keeping the sharp metal pin in place. The other shows Sparks’ right arm. A white hospital bracelet and brown adhesive bandage tape are wrapped around his wrist and the inside of his forearm is covered with deep purple bruises that represent old puncture marks.
The images demonstrate the pain Sparks has endured – rather, a small fraction of it – since the former Washington State running back was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in August, creating a considerable hurdle for someone who’s already spent much of the past 45 years running through life’s biggest obstacles.
His best chances to overcome cancer lie with intense chemotherapy sessions, daily treatment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the adrenalectomy procedure Sparks underwent on Wednesday to remove the adrenal glands above his kidneys.
But the former blue-chip recruit, WSU tailback, motivational speaker, college football assistant, philanthropist, author, mentor, father and husband has found an even stronger antidote to the cancer-induced ailments he’s experienced over the past two months.
The photos may point to his struggle, but a two-minute video from an ultrasound room in Texas reveals the strength, courage and optimism of someone who’s prepared to push for every yard and knock down every barrier in the biggest fight of his life.
“I’m starting an ultrasound, getting an ultrasound. I don’t have any blood clots in my legs, so they wanted to make sure that there was no clots,” a visibly exasperated Sparks says in the video. “They’re going to wheel me back to my room.”
After a short pause, Sparks mutters “… and the games continue.”
“Trying to get this done so I can start my treatment. So I can get better,” he says. “But I’m extremely exhausted, mentally fatigued like an athlete. Holy smokes. Talking about fourth-and-1. We need this one. We’ve got to have it. Never in as many years I thought I’d be in this predicament, but you know the enemy is always rampant, trying to pull you down.
“But we’re going to get this, we’re going to claim it. Claim the victory. God don’t make mistakes.”
The sterile confines of a hospital room more than 2,300 miles from home can make a person feel isolated, but Sparks doesn’t feel alone in this setting. Nor should he. It’s common for him to wake up to more than 100 text messages and while replying to each one can be exhausting given his current condition, Sparks doesn’t mind the busy work, reasoning, “(It) keeps my mind working, so I don’t become a cancer patient.”
When asked for a few contacts who could speak on his behalf, Sparks begins to send phone numbers in mass … and doesn’t stop. His support circle is big and it’s only growing. Sparks has kept in touch with dozens of his former teammates and coaches from WSU, including Mike Price, who was among the troupe of coaches to recruit him at Southern California’s Mater Dei in the early 1990s.
“If anybody can make it through, it’s going to be him and he’ll persevere. He’ll get off the mat,” Price said. “If he gets knocked down, he’ll get right back up. If it takes him, it’s going to be a real battle.”
Most important, it’s a battle Sparks is up for.
‘A different mentality’
Thirty years ago, Sparks was the equivalent of a five-star prospect in an era when such rankings didn’t exist. During a time when high school transfers weren’t so prevalent, the running back’s prep career became a subject of public scrutiny as he transferred from Banning High School to Montclair Prep and finally Mater Dei after relocating to California from rough conditions in his hometown of Wharton, Texas, where he was raised by a single mother. Sparks covers his upbringing and the controversy surrounding his recruitment in a 1999 paperback book, “Lessons of the Game: The betrayal of an All-American football star.”
“He came in and we thought, ‘Oh … this guy’s a hotshot and sometimes they’re a little difficult to work with,’ but he was never that way and we expected a lot out of him and he expected a lot out of himself,” Price said. “When he didn’t get it, he didn’t point fingers and he didn’t bitch about it. If we moved him out and put somebody else in there, no problem. He just wanted to help Washington State win.
“He was just a real team guy, not an individual. Sometimes those running backs can be like that, a little bit hard to work with. And that was kind of the rap he had coming out of high school. I think it was more from the high school coaches’ dissension than it was from him. He’s a pretty honest kid, upfront kind of guy.”
Chris Jackson, the former WSU wideout who’s now an assistant receivers coach for the Chicago Bears, attended Mater Dei with Sparks before accepting a scholarship with the Cougars. At a predominantly white high school, many of the Black athletes found themselves in the same circle. Jackson, just a basketball player at the time, recalls attending his first Mater Dei game and watching in awe when Sparks spotted a hole in the defense and took his first carry 75 yards for a touchdown.
Eventually, Jackson got to know the gifted running back on a personal level and Sparks grew to be something of a mentor to Jackson and WSU’s younger players.
“Derek’s mind was always on business. … I think once he realized what football provided for him, he realized football was going to come and go at some point,” Jackson said. “But he realized, this is something I’m going to build on and my story’s unique and I’m going to start sharing it. So the book and all that stuff really started with his mentality back in the mid-’90s, so really just kind of sharing the stories and taking to us about, this can’t just be about football because the university – for lack of a better word – is just going to use you. You’re going to play your time here and then after this it’s all said and done. … He was on a different mentality.”
Injuries prevented Sparks from having the distinguished NFL career many thought he was capable of, but unlike many of his peers who had futures in football derailed by unforeseen circumstances, Sparks was able to pivot and find success in other ventures. Some have been in the football space, but Sparks has been just as effective outside of his comfort zone. Public speaking had always been an intimidating concept until a WSU alum, Mary Clift, invited Sparks to speak to her class at Bordeaux Elementary School in Shelton, Washington.
“I never set out to be a motivational speaker. In fact, it’s frightening to get up in front of people to talk and be vulnerable,” he said. “… Needless to say, I agreed and when I arrived at Bordeaux, it was the entire school in the gym, not just her classroom. A speaker was born.”
Sparks has also worked at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Washington, as director of equity and inclusion, serving an especially important role for the private school last year as racial tensions boiled in the wake of George Floyd’s death, especially in the Seattle area. Sparks was set to become a Dean of Students at Kennedy Catholic before his diagnosis.
“He has demonstrated to me – he’s been here now a little over five years – he’s really just demonstrated an ability to connect with our students, in particular our students of color,” said Matt Mohs, principal/president of Kennedy Catholic. “Our students of color make up a little bit over half of our student population. So, issues related to equity are important for our school to thrive and for our students to thrive and Derek had taken on a key leadership role around it, both bringing forward student voices as well as faculty voices.
“We’re definitely missing him this year as he’s dealing with his fight.”
‘Claim the victory’
There isn’t a playbook for this chapter of Sparks’ life, but it’s also not the first time he’s been deeply involved in a battle against cancer. In 2018, Sparks’ daughter, Ze’Lee, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of cancer that compromises the blood and bone marrow and is most commonly found in children.
Mainstream thinking would suggest it’s the parents’ role to impart knowledge on their children. In this situation, however, Sparks is drawing from the strength, courage and wisdom Ze’Lee used to push through her own cancer battle.
“I recall sitting across from her hospital bed, having small talk. And she blurted out, ‘Dad, you know I’m going to beat this!’ ” Sparks said. “She said, ‘I’m claiming it. And if I don’t, I’m going to glory to be with the Lord.’ I obviously wasn’t ready to hear that. So, I switched the focus to ‘Claim it!’ And it stuck.”
Sparks described Ze’Lee’s diagnosis as something “that rocked our family to the core.”
“Why us, we asked?” he said. “We didn’t hang our head long.”
Ze’Lee claimed her victory, spawning the most impactful philanthropic idea Sparks has had to date: Cleats vs. Cancer. As his daughter fought leukemia, Derek organized a high school all-star showcase in Seattle to raise funds for children battling cancer. Approaching its fourth iteration, the event also doubles as a recruiting opportunity for under-the-radar high school prospects and has attracted top players from Washington and surrounding states. The 2019 event drew so many entries, Sparks has had to split Cleats vs. Cancer into two games.
“It’s become a thing where, it used to be, ‘OK, who wants to play in it?’ ” said Ian Furness, a radio host and TV anchor who’s done emcee work at each of the past three Cleats vs. Cancer events. “Now kids want to play in it and you really have to earn your way into it, which is cool.”
The annual fundraiser can be a confluence of Cougars and Huskies, but Apple Cup allegiances are ignored in the name of raising money for pediatric cancer research.
“Derek makes a phone call and you want to help and be there,” said former Washington quarterback Damon Huard, who noted Sparks had a special impact on his son Sam, a former Kennedy Catholic player and current UW signal-caller who was one of the nation’s top-rated high school QBs last year.
“This year at my son’s graduation, Derek’s up there on the stage as an administrator of the school this last spring and my son’s up there getting his diploma and we’re trying to take pictures and there’s Derek right up there taking the picture and sending it to us from close view.
“That’s just him, he’s just always thinking of others. What he has meant to my son just as a role model, someone who puts the community first.”
Former WSU and Seattle Seahawk center Robbie Tobeck has volunteered a hand to his old teammate and friend at Cleats vs. Cancer.
“Guys aren’t taking time out of their Saturday mornings and standing out in the rain for just anybody,” Tobeck said. “For Derek, guys were willing to do that.”
‘He’s such a fighter’
Last week in a narrow win over Lewis & Clark College, Pacific Lutheran football players all wore pink socks stamped with a “Sparks Strong” logo. The socks also depicted the outline of a running back wearing No. 5 – Sparks’ number at WSU – throwing a stiff-arm. At Kennedy Catholic’s home football game on Saturday, attendees will participate in a pink out with the same Sparks logo and a message, “We have your back!” screen-printed on custom T-shirts.
Two months into his battle, Sparks is still trying to stiff-arm cancer so he can get back to the places where he’s made the biggest impact.
“This is the only thing that could’ve pulled him away,” said PLU coach Brant McAdams, who initially hired Sparks to coach his running backs and got more than he bargained for when players began to lean on their assistant for advice off the field. “I’ve actually tried to fill that void as best I could. I’ve stepped in and coached the running backs and we’ve kind of divvied up some of the travel and I can personally speak to the fact it’s exhausting. He sets such a fun, competitive, honest, energetic demeanor and that’s the personality he brings every day and again the service-oriented service mindset.”
PLU’s running backs still communicate with Sparks in a group text message chat and his wife recently sent McAdams a photo of his co-worker sleeping in a hospital bed with a laptop still resting on his legs.
Sparks was watching game film when he dozed off. McAdams said the coaching staff has had to phase Sparks out of certain group chats to ensure he gets the rest he needs.
“He can’t not try to plug in from time to time when it fits this new schedule,” McAdams said. “That’s him.”
Five years ago, Sparks launched the “House of Champions” after learning one of his Garfield High football players was standing in front of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services holding just a suitcase. The house offers shelter for homeless high school athletes and provides an in-house “coach” to ensure rules are met.
“It’s so needed, so it’s nice to see somebody give back the way he’s doing,” said former WSU and NFL kicker Rian Lindell, who worked with Sparks on Garfield’s coaching staff. “He was this huge recruit, went to all these top schools. Then for him to kind of recognize and, ‘Hey, some of these kids need a little pick me up here.’ They need a helping hand to get going, so it’s cool that he is able to do that.”
Many know Jason Brown as the popular, controversial, polarizing coach from the viral Netflix series, “Last Chance U,” but Sparks knows him as a longtime friend and the former QB at Compton College, where Sparks first got his feet wet as a football coach. Brown, who resides in Southern California, flew to Seattle to conduct the pregame coin toss and speak at Cleats vs. Cancer a few years back, and describes his friend as “one of the true chameleons, so to speak,” elaborating “(he) can go and walk into any business, any CEO, COO – it doesn’t matter, any race, creed or color, people love Derek.”
Brown, whose father died from the same form of cancer that’s now ailing Sparks, has encouraged his friend to treat his battle like “a marathon … not a sprint.”
“This is the battle of his life and he’s got his babies to come back home to and I know he’s not ready to give this life up yet,” Brown said,
“So I told him it’s going to be a struggle, it’s going to take all his will and might, but he’s the guy that can do it if anyone can.”
The man residing in a southeastern Texas hospital room may not have firm answers when it comes to his future, but as a former running back Sparks knows stamina and patience can go a long way.
“There is no ‘if,’ ” he said.
Last month, Sparks needed his blood potassium level to increase from 2.8 to 3.5 millimoles per liter so doctors could perform a biopsy that would allow them to see if his tumors were malignant. On a bathroom mirror, Sparks used a black dry erase marker to sketch out a traditional football play correlating with his target of 3.5.
The play was called “35 blast.”
Underlined and written in capital letters, Sparks scribbled the word “GOAL” on the mirror with an arrow pointing to a power right formation where, naturally, No. 5 is in the backfield ready to explode through a hole.
“I think this could be one of his toughest runs he’s ever had to make, but there’s a lot of people that are in his corner,” said Jim Zeches, a former WSU linebackers coach who was Sparks’ lead recruiter.
“He’s got it in him,” Adams said. “He’s such a fighter.”
“It’s going to take all his will and might,” Brown added, “but he’s the guy that can do it if anyone can.”
“He had all the skills, catching it, running it, strong, powerful,” former WSU running backs coach Buzz Preston said. “It went as far as it went. It’s probably what’s made him fight the fight he’s fighting now and that’s what you’re proud of.”
It’s hard to know how far to run when you’re not sure where the end zone is, but Sparks knows to claim the biggest victory, he’ll first need to collect a handful of smaller ones. Every yard counts.
Two days before his adrenalectomy, Sparks conveyed his emotions in a short, candid text message.
“Gametime,” he said. “Claim the victory.”
As of this week, Sparks is no longer eligible to receive paid leave at Kennedy Catholic. He’s seeking help to cover medical expenses and monthly bills while he’s unable to work. Donations can be made to the GoFundMe page created for Sparks by his high school friend, Claudia Hudson.