June 1, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. - The athletic side of Auburn junior Sammie Coates is there for all to see. At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, he’s one of the faster and more explosive wide receivers in college football. He’s on his way to playing in the NFL.
But to see what Coates, who was a three-sport superstar at little Leroy High School, is really about, you have to look beyond the field, beyond the 42 passes he caught for 901 yards and seven touchdowns to help Auburn win the Southeastern Conference championship last season. You have to look beyond the average of 21.5 yards per catch, third best in the country.
Coates, like his teammates, is driven to finish the job that wasn’t finished last season when Florida State scored with 13 seconds left to win the BCS Championship Game. But on a warm May afternoon, he wasn’t thinking so much about touchdowns and championships. He was thinking about a little girl at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.
Kenzie Ray, the little girl Coates calls “my best friend and my little sister,” is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia and has recently been fighting a respiratory illness that forced her to go on a respirator.
“It makes me strong to see somebody like her who has to fight for her life when we take so much for granted,” Coates said. “I really love her like a sister. I know I have to keep fighting for her because she’s fighting every day.”
Coates and Kenzie got together almost by accident after Auburn’s 24-20 victory over Mississippi State. He was walking from Jordan-Hare Stadium toward his room when he saw the little girl with no hair.
“She looked real tired,” Coates said. “I just walked up and started talking to her and asked what her name was. She gave me one of her wristbands. I gave her my “together” wristband. After that, we just got to be friends. I finally got to go have lunch with her. She became like my little sister. She’s part of my family and I’m part of her family now.”
Coates came to know her parents, Keisha and Tommy Ray. He’s there for Kenzie, always available, always ready to talk or text or tweet.
Coates’ journey has not been easy. His father died in an industrial accident when he was 11. He grew up in the little town of Leroy, far from the bright lights. He says he believes to this day he has something extra to prove. But Kenzie’s struggles, he says, put it all in perspective.
“It makes me strong to see somebody like her, who has to fight for her life, when we take everything for granted,” Coates said. “I really love her like a sister. I know I have to keep fighting for her because she’s fighting every day. I love to talk to people and make them smile, but when I saw her it was something different.”
Even as Coates works toward another season, Kenzie is never far from his heart. He wears with pride the “Praying for Kenzie” wristband she gave him.
“I think we are going to have a good shot at being better than we were last year,” Coates said. “It’s all going to depend on how we come together and how we play together as a team. I see us working together now. You have people supporting each other, no matter what side of the ball they play on. That’s a big step toward coming together. It’s looking good right now.”
And he looks forward to sharing it all with a little girl in the fight of her life.
“You never know what somebody is going through,” Coates said. “I just took a little time to talk to this girl, and now I have a best friend.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: