Karen Rogers will be filled with a mother’s pride when she goes to graduation ceremonies later this month at Pasadena (Calif.) High School.
She also will be filled with tears — sad ones.
Instead of going to watch her son walk across the stage and accept his diploma, she’ll be doing the walk in his honor.
She’ll bury him June 11, 2011, just 10 days before graduation.
Austin Lacy, 18, died of complications from mesothelioma, a relatively rare cancer that is almost never found in someone so young. The disease is directly related to asbestos exposure, most often in the workplace, but normally takes 30 years or more before it takes hold.
Austin was six months removed from his last high school football game. He died just two months after his senior prom.
“He went to prom with his best friend, but he left prom with his girlfriend,” Rogers said by phone from her home in Pasadena. “He was funny that way. He never did like school that much like a lot of kids but he was intent on graduating. He was looking forward to college.”
Lacy had returned to Pasadena High for his senior year, mostly to be back with his childhood friends after spending his junior year at a nearby private school where he shined on the football field as a 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker. He attracted the attention of several college football programs.
“One of the last things he told me in the hospital was that if he wasn’t going to be well enough to play football again, he wanted to become a coach,” Rogers said. “Sports had become his life. He loved basketball, too. I can still remember him shooting baskets outside all day in his underwear. He was always being funny.”
Lacy died June 3 at the National Institute of Health in Baltimore, where he had flown with his mother in hopes of finding a solution to his suddenly failing health. Doctors locally had struggled to pinpoint his problem.
It wasn’t until early in May, after tests at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., that cancer was even mentioned to the family. A week later, they were told it was mesothelioma, a disease normally seen in people 40 or 50 years older.
Rogers had been told previously that Lacy was struggling with an infection surrounding his heart, which first hospitalized him in the spring of 2010 when doctors drained fluid from his chest.
Yet he returned to school healthy enough to play football again Pasadena High. Although his play wasn’t as good as the previous year, he often inspired teammates with an upbeat attitude and zest for the game.
“I don’t think anyone had any idea how sick he was,” Pasadena Coach Randy Horton said. “He was so enthusiastic about playing again. Maybe he wasn’t as quick as he once was, but never let up. He was great to have on the team again. He loved playing. And everybody loved having him back.”
Horton, who also coached Lacy during his freshman and sophomore seasons, will push to have Lacy’s No. 16 jersey retired at the school. The last jersey Lacy wore will be framed and displayed in the school’s weight room.
“He was a kid you won’t forget,” Horton said. “There was always a smile on his face, never any excuses. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. He never let on that anything was wrong.”
His death was announced at school late in the day June 3, prompting an outpouring of emotion. Students poured into the school gymnasium to sign a giant card in his honor.
A day later, Rio Ruiz, Lacy’s close friend and former teammate, was playing in a high school baseball game at nearby Dodger Stadium. His home run down the right field line was punctuated with his finger toward the sky when he touched home plate. It was a salute to Lacy.
They had played football together the season before at La Puente Bishop Amat High School.
“Right to the end, he was always saying, `Mom, I’m going to be all right,” Rogers said. “I think he broke down one time, and that was when he thought he was going to miss prom. He was always motivating other people.”
Not until he flew across the country to the National Institute of Health did Lacy really understand how dire his situation suddenly had become. And even there, he never lost hope. He was undergoing tests to determine his eligibility for a new form of chemotherapy, when twice he suffered cardiac arrest.
He was on life support for three days before he died.
“He was such a good boy. We just never thought something like this could happen. It’s so rare,” Rogers said. “He was special. I’ll be at graduation. Those are his friends, the people he already touched. He’ll be there in my heart.”