Just before the season started, May River football player Grant Laseter approached his fellow seniors with a heavy heart and an idea.
He had heard about another May River student who was nearing the end of his courageous fight against cancer — most everyone in Bluffton had heard the story of Michael Mugrage by that point — and he wanted to do something to honor him. Michael was a big football fan, and the Sharks’ seniors decided they wanted him to be an honorary team captain and ask him to accompany them to midfield for the pregame coin toss before their season-opening home game against Memorial Day.
But Michael’s health was declining too quickly for him to attend the game, so the Sharks called an audible. Each week, they decided, a different player would wear the No. 4 jersey that had been assigned to Michael, and because it was Laseter’s idea, he was up first.
“I actually didn’t even know him,” Laseter said. “His story just touched me so much, so I wanted to do something for him, because I heard he was a great kid.”
Michael Mugrage died Tuesday at the age of 16 after a 10-month battle with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, but the inspiration he has provided to his former schoolmates was abundantly present Friday night in “The Tank,” where the Sharks improved to 3-0 with a 27-7 win over Whale Branch.
Students and fans wore T-shirts marked with a gold ribbon to represent pediatric cancer awareness and the hashtag #PlayingForMichael. Each shirt had the number 4 on the back, and the players wore No. 4 stickers on their helmets, but no one donned Michael’s No. 4 jersey Friday. Instead, the team’s captains carried it with them to midfield for the pregame coin toss and it hung behind the team’s bench throughout the game.
Michael Mugrage’s honorary No. 4 jersey hung on the May River sideline during the Sharks’ 27-7 win over Whale Branch on Friday. The team has dedicated its season to the former MRHS student who died Tuesday after a 10-month bout with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Like Laseter, many of the players didn’t get to know Mugrage all that well. His family had moved to Bluffton from Hawaii not long before he fell ill in late-October 2017, and his health declined quickly enough that he was soon unable to attend classes in person.
But the impact his story has had on the team is apparent. Senior tight end Zach Brzezinski was overcome with emotion after wearing the No. 4 jersey during last week’s 35-21 win at Bluffton, making him the last player to don the jersey before Michael’s passing.
“It really dawned on me this week when the news broke,” Brzezinski said. “It added a heavier weight to it. Wearing that number gave me another purpose. I just felt honored to do it. … It was almost spiritual to a point that when Coach (Summers) asked me to do it I felt truly gifted, like there was a reason that I wore it.”
May River’s football team ran through this banner honoring Michael Mugrage before the Sharks’ 27-7 win over Whale Branch on Friday.
With wins in their first three games, the Sharks already have set a program record for victories, but playing for Michael has given them motivation to play for a higher purpose and make this season even more special than it’s already shaping up to be.
“Michael put up one great fight,” Laseter said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to lose him, but he put up one great fight and we wanted to represent that fight through us so he’s with us always.”
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