LAFAYETTE, Ind. | Central Catholic senior Patrick Mackey accepted the Spirit of Sport Award, presented during the Indiana Football Digest's Griddy Awards earlier this month.
Last fall, Mackey helped organize donations and other support from the Central Catholic community for the family of Winamac senior Gavin Fulmer. Prior to the Knights' regional game at Winamac, Mackey learned that Fulmer's 6-year-old brother, Cooper, was beginning a battle with leukemia.
That hit home for Mackey, whose sister, Claire, died of leukemia in June 2011 at age 15.
"I know a lot of what he's going through right now, and I know the pain, so I wanted to make sure he knew that and that he knew how strong he was being," Mackey said after the game.
Now, the Central Catholic community is rallying to support Mackey, who on Monday was diagnosed with leukemia. He began chemotherapy treatments on Tuesday. His father, Joe, said doctors have given the family a favorable long-term prognosis.
"We were horrified," Joe Mackey said of his and wife Tami's reaction to the diagnosis. "I can tell you the conversations we're having today with the physicians are not the same kind of conversations we were having with Claire.
"It's not something we would want, but it's something we are prepared to deal with to help Patrick in every way a parent can to beat this thing. And we're going to — we're going to beat this," he told the Journal & Courier.
Mackey was a starting offensive lineman and captain for a Central Catholic team that won its fourth-straight Class A state championship last fall. Central Catholic coach Kevin O'Shea said Mackey led the team with quiet confidence and maturity.
"Patrick is a first-class teammate," senior and fellow captain Ross Corcoran said. "He worked hard, and he was one of the toughest guys on the team for sure. In the tough games, a lot of guys could really lean on Patrick and his experience and his leadership to get us through when we were in tough spots."
Last Wednesday, Patrick attempted to donate during a blood drive at school. The nurse who took his sample told him he could not donate due to low hemoglobin levels, and said he should consult his family physician.
Mason Fisher, a close friend and classmate, said Mackey connected the dots between those test levels and some recent symptoms, such as increased fatigue during workouts.
Joe Mackey said the family's doctor in Lafayette ordered a full range of tests and passed the results on to a local oncologist, who in turn sent them to an oncologist at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
There were several possible diagnoses, including anemia, an infection or leukemia. Patrick Mackey worked the stage crew for three nights of Central Catholic's production of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" before heading to Indianapolis.
Additional blood work and a bone marrow scan on Monday morning confirmed the diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It is a more common — and less aggressive — form than the one that claimed Claire Mackey.
"The physicians offered to give him a day or two so he'd have a chance to process things and work through them," Joe Mackey said. "Patrick's response was no, let's get things going. Typical Patrick — there's hard work ahead, and he's ready to do it. He's ready to face this with his head up and his chest up."
Fisher said he learned of the diagnosis Monday morning and, per Patrick's wishes, spread the news to a few close friends. He then put out the word through his classmates to meet at the St. Elizabeth Central hospital chapel at 7 p.m., without revealing the reason.
About 80 Central Catholic students, parents and faculty met for what became a prayer vigil. Later that night, the Twitter hashtag "(hash)Patstrong" began circulating among Central Catholic students.
Just nine months earlier, Mackey had comforted Fisher in the hours after his mother's own cancer diagnosis.
"I was in such a state of shock. I was sad, angry — just a bunch of emotions," Fisher said. "I drove straight to his house, knocked on his door, and at that point he knew something was wrong.
"On a school night, a Tuesday night, he took me out for about three hours, just driving and talking. We sat on a bridge, tossed rocks in the water."
Joe Mackey said Patrick accepted the Spirit of Sport Award on behalf of the entire Central Catholic community. O'Shea said the Winamac coaches made the nomination.
"I remember him saying if I ever need anything to come talk to him," said Fulmer, who spoke to Patrick via telephone on Wednesday. "I didn't really think that many people were going through that. The entire month was really stressful. To know he was there meant a lot to me."
Orange "Patstrong" bracelets have been ordered. Athletic director Tim Bordenet said the school hopes to organize a benefit for the family.
Joe Mackey said Patrick will have to temporarily delay joining his brother, Connor, at Indiana University, as he had planned to do this fall.
"We're starting to hear from so many people from all over the area, from Indianapolis to Winamac," Joe Mackey said. "He has so many admirers, if you will, because of the kind of kid he is, and we're grateful to all of them for that outpouring."