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Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Darren Shanks puts his team first

By Mitch Goldich

An athlete's jersey is important. Pros measure their popularity in sales figures, teams retire their legends' numbers and some stars even buy their teammates a new Rolex in an exchange for a jersey number.

Every jersey tells a story, and few more powerfully than the one behind the green No. 66 uniform of the Patrick Henry High School Patriots in San Diego.

Two seasons ago, Darren Shanks was a typical high school football player. An anchor on his freshman squad's offensive line, Shanks impressed his coaches with his work ethic and leadership.

Then, in January 2010, his football career was put on hold by a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Instead of building his calendar around social studies tests and weekly football games, Shanks planned his days around chemotherapy treatments.

Darren Shanks and his mother, Vivian Colmenero, pose with Dick Vitale the weekend of the sportscaster's gala.

The support of his teammates and coaches kept his spirits up and he was inspired by a get-well poster that everyone autographed. "It really touched my heart and made me know they were behind me all the way," he said.

During his stay in the hospital, the Make a Wish Foundation approached Shanks. His options were limitless: He could have asked for a trip to the Super Bowl, or a day on the San Diego Chargers' practice field. Instead, Shanks put his team's interests first. Rather than let his teammates take the field in the same old uniforms they had worn since the 1980s, Shanks wished for a brand new set. Make a Wish reached out to Nike, which happily designed and donated the new threads.

For Shanks, 15, the decision was easy. "My coaches preach all the time about trying to make us better men. Not just for high school but for society. So I thought, 'Well how could I help my community of brothers?'"

His teammates and coaches were stunned. The school held a pep rally to make the announcement, and there was an outpouring of emotion. It stirred the entire community that someone would be so selfless in their own time of need.

Shanks' inspiring journey made a stop in Sarasota, Fla., on May 20, when he was one of two recipients of the Spirit of Jimmy V Award at the Dick Vitale Gala. Dickie V gathered athletes and celebrities from across the country for his annual event and raised more than $1 million for pediatric cancer research.

In a room full of sports celebrities -- from Hall of Fame basketball coaches, to NBA stars and Heisman trophy winners -- it was the 15-year-old high school football player who was the star of the show.

Shanks got up on stage and shared the story of his Make a Wish experience, while simultaneously showing the room how their donations to cancer research save lives.

Shanks is now in remission and back to playing football. His cancer-free body will proudly take the field for his junior season next fall, wearing one of the very uniforms he wished for. The strength he will need to play offensive lineman is nothing compared to the strength he needed to fight cancer.

Though Shanks is through with chemotherapy treatments, he is not done acting selflessly to help others. His next focus is on graduating high school, going to college and eventually medical school.

"I'd like to go into the medical field, to be a doctor and help kids in my situation," Shanks said. "To be able to do what the doctors did for me. I'm not doing it for the money but for the happiness it gives people."