Canyon senior wide receiver Jack McKay (18), his late father, David, right, his mother, Susan, left, and sister, Charley, pose for a photo during Jack’s freshman season at Canyon. [Provided photo]
Last Friday evening was senior night for the Canyon Eagles football team.
The Eagles seniors playing their final regular season home game at Happy State Bank Stadium were dressed in full uniform and introduced before the game on the field with their mom, dad and siblings, smiling, waving and soaking in their moment in the sun.
Canyon senior wide receiver Jack McKay, easy to spot because of his 6-foot-3 height and bright smile, walked those 25 or so yards arm and arm with his mom, Susan McKay, on his left side and his sister, Charley McKay, on his right.
“Just a winner, that’s who Jack is,” says Canyon High 20-year veteran head football coach Blake Bryant, when asked about McKay. “And when I say winner, I could go off in so many different areas. Winner on the field, winner as a person, winner in life. We all know this football stuff is going to go away some day. So it’s who you are after football is all that matters. And he’s so special in that way.”
While walking with his mom and sister, Jack didn’t point a finger skyward. But his eyes briefly found the heavens above.
Because he knows.
He knows while most of his teammates had their dad walking next to them, his dad, Dave McKay, had a seat like no other looking down.
“I know he’s up there watching,” Jack said.
You see, long before Jack and the mom he loves and the sister he adores took those meaningful steps together last Friday, Jack has walked the steps of life few high school athletes experience, or would ever want to.
How can life be fair when your dad passes away during your freshman year of high school?
I mean, come on, high school is a time of learning Algebra that only three of you in your entire class will ever use again. High school days are a time for all kinds of laughing, of playing under those Friday Night Lights like no other place but Texas, of building lifelong friendships, of boys like Jack finding out if they have any game with the girls and learning how to treat that special girl with class.
Having to bury your dad?
That’s not in the book of How to Survive Your Freshman Year of High School.
Losing your dad simply leaves a young man in the key growing years of his life questioning his faith, wondering how the heck I’m going to handle this, and, most of all simply asking the question, is life fair?
Come on, and adding to all this this we aren’t talking about a jerk of a dad. This wasn’t a deadbeat dad. Jack’s dad was all-in, invested in his two children with his heart and time.
“My dad treated everybody with respect and love,” Jack said. “I can remember when he passed after the funeral every single person who came up to me had a different story of what he had done for them and maybe changed their day. It set the perfect example for me of how treat others. How to walk with God. He taught more in those 15 years that I had with him than a lot of people get in their life.”
Jack’s dad was smart. Unlike Jack, a Class 4A all-state wide receiver as junior last year (49 catches, 1,025 yards and 9 touchdowns) he wasn’t on his sons athletic ability. Most of all, Jack’s dad cared and Jack knew it.
But come on, Jack’s dad was gone and Jack hadn’t even finished his freshman year of high school on that April 12 day in 2018 leaving him, his sister and his mom, having to figure all this out.
“My dad passed from prostrate cancer,” Jack said. “He battled it for awhile and it didn’t really affect him until the last month or two. He was struggling. It wasn’t easy at all. Kind of like you would expect.”
Canyon receiver Jack McKay goes for big yards after a catch against Pampa. [Trevor Fleeman/ Press Pass Sports]
Jack had already made a name for himself in the Canyon football program by that spring of 2018, making history in the Coach Bryant two decade era by being the first freshman to earn a varsity jersey.
Jack caught 21 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns his freshman season. But forget football for a moment. This was life. Real life is losing a dad.
“Jack has dealt with adversity and had to overcome it in losing his father,” Bryant said. “I can remember him sitting in my office here when he was a freshman and talking about all that he was going through. Then when his dad got really sick and passes I remember taking off my cross necklace and putting it on him. I remember telling him think about God every time you get mad, think about God every time you don’t understand, and buy into that concept of prayer. I now think through these four years here and how he has grown, and my gosh, superseded anything I ever dreamed of. It’s given him a peace that you just don’t find in high school kids. I admire it. I’d like to have some of that peace some time.”
Recently, Jack sat in front of his football locker and talked about his dad and how his life was never the same after April 12, 2018.
But if one closed their eyes and listened only to Jack’s words, they would swear they were sitting in front of a mature man, a well-spoken man in like his forties. Not a senior in high school.
So what happened in those 2 1/12 years since Jack’s dad passed?
Jack is still a pass-catching machine and enters the final games of his high school career with 138 catches, 2,591 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns.
“Jack’s incredible on the field and when he gets a one on one you know what we are going to do and everybody knows what we are going to do and that’s check to him,” Bryant said. “Because we believe in him that much and his teammates believe in him that much. He’s a great route runner. Any time that balls in the air he has the mentality that’s it mine. And that’s so special in a wide receiver.”
But Jack is not the same person.
Jack says thanks to the Canyon community showing their support and love, thanks to the Canyon coaching staff, thanks to his teammates, friends and mentors, thanks to “an Incredible mom,” he looks back saying his dad’s passing has blessed his life.
For starters, look at Jack’s cleats and there is a simple 4-12 written on them each game.
“The 4-12, it’s not for looks,” Jack said. “I just don’t want to ever forget. I feel like it’s the least I can do to remember my dad in my heart. Because that was the day my life was changed forever.”
Then how about the emotions running through him having to play that first football game without his dad watching him in the stands? The game was the season opener his sophomore year.
“Before that game I knelt down and prayed,” Jack said. “I said ‘Hey God’ and said my normal prayer. I prayed for health. I prayed I’m thankful for you and thanked him for my blessings. And then I said, ‘Hey dad, I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but I love you and can’t wait to see you.’ That’s how it was. It was weird not having him there in the flesh, but he’s always there.”
Even before David McKay passed away Jack was dealing with his feelings and found trust in the men who guide the Canyon football program.
“The coaching staff at Canyon High, I don’t think there is another one like it anywhere,” Jack said. “After a game my freshman year, I was sad because I was thinking that’s the last time my dad got to see me play. Right outside the locker room (he points with his hand) I was crying on Coach (Todd) Winfrey’s shoulder. It just shows you those dudes care for us and not just about our stats on the field. They care about our faith and they care about our hearts. I’m so thankful.”
Oh, and for sure, he a thousand percent looked to the skies and asked questions to the man above.
“At first I was Why? Why?” Jack said. “For those who knew my dad he really was a great man. So why? Why do bad things happen to good people. Now it’s like two, two and half years later, I can look back and say a lot of good came out of that. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Hold on a second. Did we get this right? Not change a thing? That’s correct. Jack’s faith in his Lord Jesus Christ has grown leaps and bounds, a sight he knows has his dad happier than any touchdown he ever scored.
“It’s a cliché, but God has a plan for everybody,” Jack said. “It’s a cliché because everybody knows it’s true. I kept telling myself God you are working, I don’t know how. I don’t see it right now, but I know you are. That gave me a little peace. But at the same time I was dealing with all the sadness of missing him. Even right now, if I just sat down and thought about him I’d definitely cry. It still hurts. It’s still pain.”
But it’s still the reason Jack is quick to smile these days.
“It was big deal for me in that I had really never had to rely only on my faith before,” Jack said. “I’m eternally thankful. This is going to sound (he pauses) … like honestly when I look back I wouldn’t change a thing. What I would say is my dad lost like 30 years of his life, but in that time I came to know God because I had to rely on him. That thirty years he lost changed my eternity and I can never be biter. It’s just the way God worked in my life.
“Absolutely I miss him. I can’t wait to see him again one day. It has ended up, this whole situation, made for good in my life. I will never ever be glad he died. I will always miss him and be sad. But I am glad what came out of it and that brings me peace.”
Jack’s mom, Susan, has watched “the kid who was in constant motion” turn into a man with some of the same traits as David.
“David was authentically himself no matter who he was around,” Susan said, who once saw her husband order a hamburger at a White House dinner. “Jack is like that. He is humble and affable, just like his father. And Jack is kind. … I know what David would say looking down and that’s you have turned into the man I always knew you would be.”
Jack said his mom has been there every minute for him along this walk. Just like she was Friday night, senior night.
“I had a lot of growing up to do after my dad’s funeral,” Jack said. “I will never take credit for being in control of our household because my mom has been incredible. She has done so much for me. She’s loving and just so caring. She’s a social worker and just got her Masters. She never basis her love for me off a performance. Like I have a bad game and she tells me I love you. Yeah, she’s been incredible. That’s who she is.
“But I did have to be the man for my sister and my mom. I was 15 at the time and I think I had to grow up a lot faster than most people.”
Jack said he’s not sure anything will quite replace the thrill of playing high school football, and that includes his teammates who he helped over and over during his tougher days dealing with his losing his dad.
Jack would love a chance at playing college football and is passionate about attending Texas Tech (and studying finance). Jack’s third biggest fan in line behind his mom and sister says whoever takes Jack on is getting the best of the best.
“He just needs a shot,” Coach Bryant said. “He can play anywhere. I’m telling ya. He needs a shot. If that’s what he decides to chase they are getting a coverboy for their program. A guy that you can put in front of the media, a great teammate, a first class kid. And when he leaves they are going to be proud of him. Jack will be a part of my family the rest of my life. That’s how much I admire him and believe him. And that’s how much he loves us.”
If nothing else, Jack and his mom, Susan, have lived and learned inside and out the answer to this simple question: Is life fair?“It’s guaranteed that life is not fair,” Susan said. “Adversity will come. But as Viktor Frankl said what we have is we can choose a pause and we can adapt a perspective and an attitude that helps us meet adversity and learn from it. So the secret is not to be sacred of adversity, or mishap, and wrap your heart around God being there and help you through it.”How about it Jack? Life fair?“No. But that’s OK,” Jack said. “That’s the beauty of it. That’s what I’ve learned. Like Cash Page, he’s one my best friends, and that’s his locker over there. He recently tore his ACL and everything in his knee. My heart breaks for him. But when I texted him he said, ‘Don’t worry, God is working.’ If that’s not a testament to how God changes hearts, I don’t what is. Life is not fair. But God in the end is.”