DARBY – High school sports make a much bigger impact than simply counting wins and losses. Sometimes a team and a town get back on the field for something much more important. The KPAX Youth Sports Spotlight traveled to a grieving Bitterroot Valley community.
In 2017 Darby High School alumnus and former Tigers center Jake “Sunshine” Sanders was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
On Oct. 10, Sanders passed away at his home in Darby just minutes from the football field he once played on. Since the 2017 season the Darby Tigers have been playing in his honor and were praying for his recovery. Just a few weeks ago the team got the heartbreaking news that Sanders had made the decision to return home and discontinue treatment.
“We were out here at practice, and it was hard for me. I had to take a minute, and then to let my players know,” said Darby head football coach Jeff Snavely. “It was sure emotional that day.”
That Friday night the Tigers ran an invisible man formation honoring their former center.
Since Sanders’ diagnosis, Snavely says the entire community’s support has been truly special, and there’s reason for this reaction from Darby. Sanders might have been a quiet guy, but his coaches, teammates and friends all remember him as an ideal teammate and leader.
“When he was still in high school everybody loved him,” said Darby senior Cole Kayser. “You couldn’t not like Jake. He had a great personality. He was always joking. Whenever I visited him when he had cancer, still he was just joking about everything. He was just a great kid.”
“Sunshine taught me how to snap,” said family friend Gus Harrell, a Darby fifth-grader. “He taught me how to tackle. He taught me the physics of the game. He was really, really a great guy, a really great guy.”
“Even when he got in a fight in one of the games, and it wasn’t his fault — he was protecting himself — they both got ejected. And he was like, ‘Coach, I didn’t say anything to him.’ And, you know, he was one of those kids you could say, ‘I believe you, Jake,'” remembered Snavely. “He wasn’t outspoken until it needed to be outspoken. He was a leader on this team, just a different kind of leader.”
The community is still at a loss for words and grieving, but Snavely knows the No. 61 will now live on forever in the Bitterroot Valley.
“He never gave up. Whether it was a football game or during his battle with cancer, he fought all the way to the very end. I didn’t realize how big 61 would be in this community, but it is a thing now,” Snavely said. “So hopefully it represents being strong and fighting for everything you want.”
Charlo had to forfeit last Friday’s scheduled game in Darby, so the Tigers instead played a scrimmage and celebrated the life of Sanders.