Apr 23 / jmusport

Guest Post: The Heart of JMU

Andrea Clay is the parent of 2 Dukes (Class of 2018 and 2020). When she’s not rooting, she’s a nonprofit fundraiser living in northern Virginia with her husband and two mischievous dogs. Here’s her guest post, which is probably the most touching thing we’ve ever had on the blog.

When JMU’s spring football season started, I told myself to just enjoy the ride. Wins didn’t matter—what mattered was after 14 long, strange months I would get to root for the Dukes again. Watching the first three games of the season, I mostly kept that perspective (the first half of the Elon game notwithstanding). It was great to see the team on the field despite uncertainty about who should be QB1, how the O-line was going to perform without newly-injured Liam Fornadel and how many games we could play while COVID was still a real threat.

And then something happened…I got the call that everyone dreads. One of my brothers had a massive stroke and I needed to fly across the country to be with him. Suddenly football was more and less important all at the same time. The day of the W&M game, I was able to catch a bit of the game while my brother was resting. It was nice to have a brief respite from the reality of my brother’s situation which was extremely serious. The hospital has a very distinct smell and rhythm that feels abnormal the minute you arrive. Watching the game and discussing it in our family group text gave me a few minutes of normal

Then things got complicated. JMU’s season hung in the balance as did my brother’s precarious health. There was no football to distract me (although I do enjoy other JMU sports—especially baseball and softball!). Each week I hoped to hear the team would be able to take the field but understood there are things bigger than sports. My brother had good days and bad days but he was finally stable enough for me to fly home at least for a few weeks.

My days consisted of working a full day and then spending an hour or two trying to coordinate my brother’s care. There was an endless stream of paperwork to complete along with researching facilities that might offer him the best chance to recover. Last week, we were close to finalizing a long-term care plan for my brother AND the Spiders finally agreed to play JMU.

Friday morning started like normal except for the first time in months, my husband and I were planning our trip to Harrisonburg for the game. Then I received a call that my brother had suffered another stroke and was heading back to the hospital. The rest of the day was spent hearing somewhat conflicting reports on what his prognosis was but everyone was clear I didn’t need to head back to Arizona immediately. So I booked a flight for early Sunday morning so I could attend the game like planned.

It was a glorious sunny day in Harrisonburg. The sky is so blue in the Valley this time of year. As we walked to the stadium, everything felt weirdly normal. We found our seats and on cue, I got teary eyed when the current JMU video extolling everything that makes JMU special was shown on the big screen. Then my phone rang with an update on my brother. Things had taken a very serious turn and I frantically tried to see if I could get to Arizona any sooner. It was clear very quickly that my Sunday morning flight was my best option. So I tried to just focus on the game knowing this would be my last bit of normal for quite some time.

While the Dukes got off to a fast start, it took me a few minutes to really get into the game. But then something happened. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to just focus on the moment in front of me. Ethan Ratke kicked his CAA-record field goal and we closed the first quarter up by 10. The defense played well and after trading field goals, we headed into the fourth quarter. By this time, I had spoken with the doctor in charge of my brother’s care so ensure our family was united in the decisions that had to be made. He didn’t pull any punches in telling us what the outcome was going to be and we all appreciated his honest compassion as he spoke with us. 

It’s now late in the fourth quarter and the Dukes were deep in Richmond territory with 1:00 to go. My husband asked me if I thought we’d try to score and I said yes. I said we have something to prove to the selection committee and we should get more points on the board. (Foreshadowing perhaps?) Instead the Dukes took a knee and the game ended with another key victory over the Spiders. 

The drive back to northern Virginia is a bit of a blur but it was great to have three hours when my biggest care in the world was whether Cole Johnson should really be running the ball that much and what was happening in the Fargodome. And that’s the beauty of sports. Sports can transport you from your reality for a few hours into something special. Something different. That is especially true at JMU. There’s something about being in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley that gets into your DNA and it’s like no other place. If this were the plot of a classic sports movie, the ending would have us winning it all in Frisco next month. That would be great. But for me the ending isn’t the point this season. The point is JMU football was around when I needed it most. Go Dukes!


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  1. bastein410 / Apr 23 2021


  2. bastein410 / Apr 23 2021

    Sorry, I think my purple and gold heart emojis show up as question marks. Well written, all the best to you and your family. Go Dukes!

  3. Chris / Apr 23 2021

    I wish you and your family peace and strength and all the good things. Thank you for sharing you experience. GO DUKES!!!

  4. Rob K / Apr 23 2021

    Thank you for posting this, it is really touching

  5. Randy'78 / Apr 23 2021

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Very well said and representative of how some many of us feel about our Dukes. Our prayers are with you and your family.

  6. Cory / Apr 23 2021

    Thank you so much for sharing! Prayers for your family.

  7. Andrea / Apr 23 2021

    Thanks everyone for your kind words. It’s just the way I hoped JMU nation would respond.

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