Paul Hunter waited last season while playing on Ryan’s junior varsity team as the quarterback. He stood on the sideline on Friday nights until he was eligible to join his friends on the varsity team.
Hunter’s no longer playing with the JV on Thursdays. Hunter has started at safety this season, and last week the senior came up with a key interception that propelled Ryan to a blowout win over McKinney.
But no matter what Hunter does on the field, it won’t be his best moment of the season.
Hunter is still waiting and hoping for that moment.
The highlight of Hunter’s season will be on senior night, when his mother will join him on the field and they face the Ryan bleachers.
Hunter’s mother, Susan Wallace, is fighting breast cancer.
Last year, Wallace, 45, was in the stands as Hunter led Ryan Blue — Ryan’s top JV team — as a starting quarterback. This season, Wallace hasn’t seen her son become one of Ryan’s best varsity defenders and one of the big reasons Ryan is 4-0.
“She’s usually the loudest one in the stands every year at every game — basketball, football, track,” Hunter said. “I miss that a lot. I’m not going to lie.”
Ryan coach Joey Florence described his starting safety mostly as a smiling kid with a good demeanor who’s going to be at practice every day. For Florence, Hunter’s story and background reaffirm why high school athletics are needed.
“It’s always amazing to see the stuff these kids overcome and how they handle adversity and still come to school with a smile on their face, still come to practice with a smile on their face, and then go out there and play for the Raiders — play hard,” Florence said. “It’s why I admire them. It’s why I respect them.”
For generations, the Hunter family lived in Harvey, La., a town on the west bank of the Mississippi River less than 10 miles from downtown New Orleans. Paul Hunter Jr. spent his childhood there. His family left one day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and killed more than 1,800 people and scattered more than 250,000 people across the country, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Hunter’s family first went to Mississippi and ended up in North Texas. Once people were allowed back into the New Orleans area, Paul Hunter Sr. went back to Harvey to work on the homes of relatives. Wallace bought a house in Denton.
Over the past four years, she worked at the Denton State Supported Living Center, supervising and helping those with disabilities. Paul Jr. went to Strickland Middle School. When high school rolled around, all his friends went to Ryan but Hunter ended up at Denton.
In July 2012, Hunter got home after morning workouts at Denton. Wallace sat down and told Hunter and his sister that she had breast cancer.
Leaving DHS, leaving home
Around the time Hunter found out about his mother’s cancer, Wallace approached the family of Ryan quarterback Mitchell Bridges. Bridges and Hunter played football together at Strickland.
“Paul is a very strong individual,” Bridges said. “He doesn’t show much emotion, but you can tell — at least I can tell — when he cares about something. And football is one of his top priorities.”
Hunter went with Bridges’ family to visit Mitchell’s older sister, Sam, on parents day at Midwestern State. When the family went out of town for Sam’s softball tournaments or Mitchell’s baseball tournaments, Mitchell would ask if Paul could come. Hunter has spent the last four or so Thanksgivings with his best friend’s family while his mom was working on the holiday.
So when Wallace visited the Bridges’ living room one day and described what was happening to her, there was no hesitation to help out the family friend.
“[Paul]’s been a part of our family for years,” said Michelle Bridges, Mitchell’s mother. “We looked at her and said we’ll do whatever you want us to do.”
Hunter and Wallace decided it’d be best if Paul moved in with the Bridges.
“In the beginning, it didn’t even seem like she had cancer, because she wasn’t sick or anything and she was moving around fine,” Hunter said of his mother. “But after her second surgery, you could start seeing the effects of it and everything and why she chose for me to live with the Bridges.”
Hunter and the Bridges asked the Denton school district for a hardship transfer. David Hicks, the district’s executive director for secondary academic programs, oversees a board comprising the district’s athletic directors and high school principals that approves hardship transfers.
Hicks said he’s received about 40 transfer requests this year, but typically only 5 percent to 10 percent of requests are approved since the district is closed to transfers because the high schools are filled with students from their attendance zones. However, each request is looked at on a case-by-case basis.
“If a transfer would alleviate some of the extreme hardship that’s presented, then we make the transfer,” Hicks said.
The district approved Hunter’s transfer from Denton to Ryan but ruled him ineligible to play varsity football last season.
So from Sunday through Thursday, Hunter leaves school after football practice and goes to see his mother before he heads to the Bridges’ house in the evening. After Friday night’s game, Hunter spends the weekend by his mother’s bedside.
Hunter said that what’s happened to his mother helped him straighten out in school and forced him to grow up.
“I don’t think I was headed down the right path before everything,” Hunter said. “I wasn’t on my grades or anything. I didn’t really care. And then, when everything happened, I had to be a grown man.”
When Hunter received his driver’s license this year, he didn’t have a parking spot at school. So he went to Sam Bridges’ house across the street from Ryan and parked in her driveway. The varsity quarterback’s sister — now at TWU — posted a photo of Hunter’s car on the social networking site Instagram, commenting on how her brother had parked in her driveway for school.
‘Preparing for that moment’
On Wednesday afternoon at the Wallace house, there were plenty of people around. Among them was Gail Wallace, Susan’s mother and Paul Jr.’s grandmother, who goes by Grandma Gail.
Grandma Gail, 67, is visiting. She was joined by Paul Sr., who’s been in town for about three weeks.
Susan Wallace was resting in a bed facing a television surrounded by balloons and pictures. As she hosted a guest in her room and sat up, she periodically asked Paul Jr. to move her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.
“He’s been here through the whole thing,” Susan Wallace said in a soft, quiet voice. “When I had chemo and stuff, he was here.”
Chemotherapy and radiation have charred much of Wallace’s chest. Gail Wallace said plastic surgeons have said they haven’t seen such a reaction to the cancer treatment.
“Susan is a very strong person,” Gail Wallace said. “To me, it’s just so horrible that she has to suffer like this. And it looks like there’s not too much more that they can do.”
As the news showed the possibility of Tropical Storm Karen going through New Orleans, Susan Wallace wanted to thank all her supporters — her family, co-workers, the coaches at Ryan, those in the district — thankful for their prayers and what they’re doing for Paul and her family.
Wallace will continue her fight against cancer while Paul continues leading Ryan’s defense in his senior season. Before the season comes to a close, Wallace is determined to watch her son on the field and join him on senior night.
“I’m preparing for that moment,” Wallace said.
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.