Saturdays in the fall are special in Knoxville, Tennessee. As the hot September sun begins to bake into the colosseum known as Neyland Stadium, a little boy stands on the sideline with his father. He is lean and rangy, in the manner of kids who’ve just grown into a new size of clothes, and such a supporter of the Tennessee Volunteers that he has a power “T” shaved into the side of his head. AJ Cucksey is special, a child of love and hope, waiting patiently for his best friend Josh.
AJ’s best friend is Joshua Dobbs, the star quarterback for the University of Tennessee, but that’s not what makes this story special. The power “T” AJ sports so proudly hides an unseen enemy, several in fact. A rare form of pediatric cancer called Pilocyctic astrocytoma has left seven inoperable tumors in his head, but that’s not what makes AJ special.
This story is special not because of a star football player and his pint-sized buddy, or because of the difficulties AJ faces. Separately, AJ and Josh are both outstanding young men. But what makes this story special is how both of them together inspire something truly magical.
“So, yes, the attention is usually on Josh. I know for many people this has to do with him being an SEC star QB; I grew up in Knoxville so the celebrity of that isn’t lost on me! But I guess we really see the genuineness there and that’s enough for us,” AJ’s mom, Shannon, explains.
That genuine friendship is easily seen in the plethora of photos of the two together. But what isn’t seen is how that friendship impacts others.
“Through Josh, AJ has met other players and they have openly embraced him. Josh brought Brett Kendrick with him to AJ’s birthday party. I have great pictures of AJ opening his birthday presents, flanked by these two college football players who look like they are having a blast looking at Ninja Turtles and coloring books. But there have been many, many people in the UT Athletic Department who have supported AJ in one way or another.”
AJ and Josh met right after the shattering diagnosis. In early October of 2014, the Cucksey family was vacationing in Disneyland when their then four-year-old son began to stumble and slur his words. A few weeks later, AJ was in the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, undergoing a brutal regimen of chemotherapy. That’s when AJ met Josh, and through him other people: players, the Volunteers’ head coach Butch Jones, and former UT All-American Antone Davis, who works for the university as the football coordinator of the Vol for Life program, which is a comprehensive support initiative for former athletes. They, too, fell under AJ’s spell.
“In a way, I see a lot of AJ in Antone, or vice versa. There is a love of life, big physical stature, big personality presence, the ability to talk to anybody about anything, and that infectious smile,” Shannon said. “Butch first met AJ in November 2014, right after he was diagnosed. AJ was confined to a wheelchair and had mobility, speech, and cognitive issues. He was able to attend a practice at the Anderson Training Center. It struck me from listening to them and looking back on the pictures how genuinely Butch engaged with AJ. And not in a pitying, condescending way. In a way that understood AJ loves football and needed to talk about football, not how sorry Butch was for his condition.”
But there was always Josh. Despite his incredibly packed schedule of school, football, and the media, Josh takes the time to go hang out with AJ. They talk, and play, and do all the things a pair of brothers would do. Their relationship is so special and different that ESPN filmed a four-minute spot for College GameDay this July.
“To see them together is really special. You take away the football, the cancer, the aerospace major, the brain tumors, these are two boys who just want to be and do and love and live. The labels don’t seem to apply to the two of them when they are hanging out together,” Shannon said.
“The first time Josh came to see AJ, we gave him a pair of bracelets,” father John added. “One said PRAYERS FOR AJ and the other KEEP SMILING. Josh still wears his bracelets – wears them to every game. He wore them to the (January 2015) Taxslayer bowl – one on each arm, and when he came back he came over and gave one to AJ. He said, ‘I wore that in the bowl game and I want you to keep it.’”
“AJ isn’t really taken with the celebrity of it. The adults or other kids are. AJ just thinks it’s cool that his friend Josh came over to the house. Then when he sees people’s excitement and enthusiasm about it, he gets excited and wants to share the joy,” Shannon said.
The entire team, including the coaches and staff, have taken AJ under their wing, but the resulting attention hasn’t affected the little boy. “No one from the UT Athletic group has ever treated AJ like a ‘pitiful sick kid’ but recognize his strengths, his love of life and laughter and big personality. He is like a little part of the team.”
There are many stories of athletes who give of their time and humanity to inspire children to overcome their obstacles, and if that was the case here it would be a heartwarming story. But what makes this story so different is how this unique friendship is inspiring other people, and having a postive impact on other lives. This year, AJ was chosen as the Children’s Miracle Network Champion for the state of Tennessee – a little ambassador for the CMN and the work it does. But for AJ, that wasn’t enough. So he and his parents turned their thoughts to raising awareness for pilocyctic astrocytoma and funds for ETCH.
“The term ‘Cucksey strong’ originated in the hospital and a spinoff of something we have always told our kids, ‘Cuckseys don’t say can’t.’ At one point in the PICU, AJ said that he couldn’t do something. It’s funny that I can’t recall what it was, but I can recall telling him, ‘You can do this. You are a Cucksey. You are strong. Cuckseys don’t say can’t.’ On this journey, you are up and down a lot, especially in those early months. So ‘Cucksey strong’ sort of became a catchphrase, for lack of a better way to put it, that we could go back to for a reset and to remind ourselves about what we are made of,” Shannon said.
The Cuckseys worked with local graphic artist Jeff Page to design a logo with the #CuckseyStrong hashtag and an image that evokes the great love of AJ’s life: his favorite team and his best friend. They are now selling the shirts in a Booster campaign, with all the proceeds going to ETCH.
In addition, AJ has a slew of fall events and appearances at charity fundraisers. And because the Cuckseys are who they are, they are personally going to every WalMart that features AJ’s life-size smiling cutout, thanking people for their donations to the Children’s Miracle Network.
That’s a workload that would be hard to bear for an adult, much less a six-year-old who should be busy with school and play. But AJ is just that kind of kid, which is likely the reason the Children’s Miracle Network selected him as its Tennessee champion. “AJ has always, before and since his diagnosis, found a way to shift any situation to the positive,” Shannon said proudly. “I don’t exactly know how AJ was selected as the Champion for Tennessee. I don’t know what distinguished AJ officially. As his completely unbiased mother, I would say that his charisma and willingness to speak publicly helped. He’s also got a great story of courage and determination.”
AJ’s charisma is evident on his YouTube channel, with videos of him singing his favorite songs, especially “Rocky Top,” UT’s unofficial fight song and the bane of teams playing the Vols. He even sang it for another of his idols, Peyton Manning, at Manning’s annual golf charity fundraiser for ETCH. His unwavering love for the Volunteers is one of the factors that has so endeared him not just to the people of Tennessee, but to the players and men he looks up to at UT.
He would never stop to think that they, perhaps, look up to him as well. His influence, his courage and personality, has stretched far beyond the halls of ETCH or the football field. Sometimes, that manifests in unexpected ways.
“I think what sticks out in my head the most occurred approximately a month or two after AJ met Butch, and the two of them weren’t even there for it,” Shannon said. “John was at work at Target and he started helping a lady who was shopping. She suddenly asked, ‘Are you AJ’s dad?’ He was taken aback and said that he was. She replied, ‘I’m Butch’s wife – and we are praying for AJ.’ No cameras. No celebrity. Just two parents embracing a sense of community.”
The lady was Barbara Jones, wife of Tennessee’s head coach, and the encounter displays that sense of community Shannon Cucksey mentioned.
Community. That word means a lot, particularly in the South. It exemplifies the relationship between AJ and the large world around him. That relationship is bringing about important results. In just a little over a week, the #CuckseyStrong t-shirt campaign has raised over $3,700 for ETCH and is near to meeting its initial goal. As soon as that campaign ends, the Cuckseys intend to start another. And while AJ will always be affected by his brain tumors, the community around him of family, friends, medical staff, and the people of eastern Tennessee will be there to support him.
At the core of that community are the University of Tennessee and its football program – and its passionate and fierce fans. Volunteer Nation was outraged when the GameDay feature about AJ and Josh was pulled before the Battle at Bristol, when the family had been told the story would air. An ESPN spokesperson gave a statement regarding the decision.
There are often times when we have a feature story pegged for a given week, then news and storylines change and we have to switch gears. We will find a good home for the Joshua Dobbs story on College GameDay within the coming weeks.
That didn’t appease many Vols fans, who were angry that ESPN had pulled a feature about a Tennessee child with pediatric cancer from the show, especially considering that it was a Tennessee game, played in Tennessee, and also Childhood Cancer Awareness month. But here, too, the reaction was different. This was AJ Cucksey, a very special child, and the fan base was instantly irate. Tennessee faithful inundated the network’s social media sites with their furious reaction, and showed up for the GameDay broadcast with signs that had #CuckseyStrong on them. ESPN GameDay is in Knoxville this weekend for the Tennessee-Florida game, but the network has not confirmed whether the feature will be aired then. UT fans will not be happy if AJ is snubbed a second time. The fanbase has an all-embracing protective instinct for AJ that mirrors that of the Tennessee football program.
“We went to the Anderson Training Center a few weeks ago for the ESPN College Game Day interview. When the team first walked in from practice, AJ went to give Butch a high-five and Butch responded with, ‘No, no, I need to get a hug from this guy.’ And it was just so genuine and loving. I think Antone [Davis] and the Joneses [Butch and Barbara] really represent why UT fans are so loyal to the Athletic program and what the VFL mindset is all about. At the heart and soul and root of it all, it’s about a sense of community who is there for you.”
And at the heart of that community is the story of a little boy and his best friend. Brothers, really, so the disparity in their ages doesn’t matter. AJ has all the adoration a kid has for an older brother who does amazing things. Josh is a role model for AJ: an aeronautic engineering major with an outstanding scholastic record, a famous quarterback for a storied program, and a young man with a history of doing all he can for people in his community, and especially for his youngest fans. But in many ways, AJ is a role model for Josh as well, as is attested by the faded and battered bracelet he still wears on his wrist.
Last Saturday, AJ was patient on the sidelines, as any child who’s faced the rigors of oncologic treatments and chemotherapy must be. But Josh wasn’t. After as he ran out of the tunnel with the other players for pre-game warmups, he didn’t immediately go onto the field with his teammates. Instead he ran straight to the sideline where AJ was waiting for him, without hesitating or looking anywhere else. Just like a child would, when he finally gets to see someone he’s been waiting a long time to see. The moment was shared by tens of thousands of people, but only experienced by two: the boy with his best friend.
AJ and Josh. Both Cucksey strong. Both outstanding examples of what we want our sons to be.
You can donate to ETCH here.
You can learn about Tennessee Champion AJ at the Children’s Miracle Network here.