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Friday, November 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: WIAA award helps keep Jace Malek’s spirit alive

Jace Malek, a West Valley High School football player, committed to the Vandals for football and then learned he had cancer. The Vandals embraced Malek as a teammate until he died Feb. 28. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Jace Malek, a West Valley High School football player, committed to the Vandals for football and then learned he had cancer. The Vandals embraced Malek as a teammate until he died Feb. 28. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

By the time I discovered Heywood Hale Broun, he was an offbeat sports commentator for CBS Sports who wore the kind of loud sports coat that would otherwise be turned into seat covers for a vintage Volkswagen Beetle.

It was later that I discovered a string of Broun quotes that defined my personal theory of sports. He was quoted in the Ames, Iowa, newspaper after making a speech there in January 1974. In it, he said:

“Anybody who teaches a skill, which coaches do, is admirable. But sport doesn’t build character. Character is built pretty much by the time you’re 6 or 7. Sports reveals character. Sports heightens your perceptions. Let that be enough.”

He’s right. Sports are, by design, factories for controlled adversity. Whether it’s Muhammad Ali stepping through the ropes in Manila to face Joe Frazier or Kirk Gibson stepping into the batter’s box in the World Series to face Dennis Eckersley, sports have a way of stripping away pretense and revealing something about who we are at the very core of our being.

Life has a way of doing that, too. Only on a larger scale.

Jace Malek got our attention by being a true competitor on the fields of West Valley High School. He was a relentless football player and a championship-caliber wrestler. He was a model as both a leader and a teammate.

He brought us a feel-good story when he accepted a scholarship to follow his dream by playing football at the University of Idaho. You could just see his ever-present smile helping to turn around a college football program that had seen better days.

And then it all got turned on its head in the most brutal way possible. That nagging pain in his hip that had dogged him through his senior season as an Eagle wrestler revealed itself as Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

The last year of Malek’s life was spent facing the most relentless of opponents. He faced cancer with a resolve that did not crack and with a spirit that refused to dim, even as his prognosis turned darker and darker with each test.

Even after the cancer had taken his leg, Malek refused to allow cancer to drive him to his knees in surrender. In fact, he never let it drive the megawatt smile from his face.

Terminal cancer can define who we are. That was never the case with Jace.

And that’s what was so remarkable about this young man – that so much strength and character could be revealed in one so young. Cancer was just a chisel to reveal an even greater role model.

Mike Ottis read the stories and followed Malek’s fight with cancer, and he was moved.

The athletic director at tiny Wilson Creek High School and Washington Interscholastic Activities Association board president, Ottis told an assembly at West Valley High School last week about how Malek’s story inspired him. He called Malek “my own personal lightning bolt.”

Led by Ottis, the WIAA created the Jace Malek True Spirit Award, which will be awarded annually.

The first award was given to Malek’s family. His mother, Anna Ackerman, accepted the award, standing on the West Valley gym floor where her son experienced most of his 101 wins as a three-time state finalist.

The memory of Jace’s passing is still fresh in everyone’s memory, and those memories are still accompanied with tears. The pain will never go away for those who knew and loved a young man of rare spirit and character – the loss is too great to ever expect it to. The sharpness of that pain will fade over time.

But the story of how Jace Malek lived will live on.

The WIAA has made made certain of that.

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