With no game this past weekend, the Auburn coaches gave the players Friday and Saturday off. Some went home. Others stayed around campus, enjoying the two-day break. Sammie Coates did neither. The wide receiver made the two-hour trip to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham to spend Friday with Kenzie Ray, a 12-year-old girl with leukemia.
The two spent hours playing video games. When she got stuck on a level, Coates helped her get through it. He went to dinner with Kenzie’s family before going back to the hospital, where he stayed with her until almost 9 p.m.
"She just gets happy [around Coates]," Kenzie’s mother, Keisha Ray, said. "It’s just like when her family comes up. She gets a little more rambunctious when her brothers are here or her daddy is here. It’s the same thing.
"I think to start with, she kind of looked at Sammie as something bigger. He did make her feel special and that sort of thing, and he still does. But I think it’s grown into something bigger. He’s my family. I feel like he’s one of mine when he’s here."
The relationship began in September 2013, when Kenzie attended the Auburn-Mississippi State game. She was invited by a family friend to meet Auburn offensive tackle and cancer survivor Shon Coleman, and the two talked after the game. But Coleman wasn’t the only player she met that night.
Not knowing who Kenzie was, Coates walked up after the game and began talking with her. The two exchanged wristbands; he gave her a shoutout on Twitter; she sent him a friend request. Now there’s nothing that can separate them.
More than a year later, they don’t go even a day without at least texting one another. Most of the time, they are talking on the phone or through Facetime.
"When I met Kenzie, I thought she was my role model because I look up to her and how strong she is and how she fights," Coates said after the Louisiana Tech game in late September. "That makes me fight harder. It makes me become a better person every day. It’s just a blessing to have her in my life."
With Coates, it’s about more than football. He led Auburn with 42 receptions, 902 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, but he will be the first to tell you that it doesn’t matter how many catches or yards he has. It doesn’t even matter who wins or loses. He just wants to use his abilities to help other people, people like Kenzie.
"Sammie’s got a big heart," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "Obviously he loves football, loves to compete, but he’s got a big heart for things outside of football.
"Usually if you’re around Sammie and he doesn’t have a big smile or he seems down, it’s because one of those kids that he’s gotten close to is struggling. It gets him in a funk, and that’s how close he gets to them."
Recently, Coates did receive some bad news about Kenzie. The family discovered that despite getting a bone marrow transplant in August, she still has leukemia.
As soon as Coates got the news, he sent Kenzie a text message. They talked briefly, and the same girl who was crying just five minutes earlier came out, told her mom Coates had sent her a message, and said: "I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep fighting."
"I don’t really know what he said," her mother said later. "But he just keeps her fired up. He’s a huge source of inspiration for her."
That’s why when Coates finally got some time away from the football field, he didn’t waste any time, and went to see Kenzie. After all, she’s his source of inspiration, too.
"You can’t get down when you see people like that, that fight every day of their life," Coates said. "That’s one thing I take out there and try to tell my teammates to do. Play this game like you’re happy to play it. Don’t be down about little stuff, like a nick or a bruise. You’ve got people out there fighting for their life every day.
"That’s the attitude you’ve got to have. You’ve got to be happy for every opportunity you get. That’s what I take from [Kenzie]. She means a lot to me."