Some 200 young men from Blue Springs and Staley high schools were in uniform on the field and sidelines Friday at North Kansas City District Football Stadium.
As LeAnn Cruce gazed down from the stands, she thought about how every one of them probably has faced something difficult to contend with in life.
Even if it’s not obvious, even if each has his own distinct challenges or might seem to have the world in his hands.
It just comes with the age, in this stadium or any other.
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Yet for all the rotten things we hear about sports nowadays, sometimes they’re still part of the solution, too.
Especially with a loving extended family, blood or otherwise.
She knows about one of these stories for sure: Staley’s Kyle Cambrice, a senior linebacker who doesn’t know his birth father and essentially was abandoned by his mother along with his older brother at a year old.
The boys were raised for years by their maternal grandmother. Then her health issues and Kyle’s straying focus and drifting motivation made him academically ineligible for football and on the verge of going nowhere.
So LeAnn and Scott Cruce, his Big Brother for years through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kansas City, decided to devote themselves even more to Kyle.
He’d come live with them and their two young boys.
They’d wanted a third child, after all.
They just hadn’t expected one to arrive in what LeAnn jokingly called “a huge bassinet.”
Huge new responsibilities, of course, were delivered in the process. A teenager is its own thing — all the more so when it materializes in a house that hasn’t had one.
Then again, this is one who sees life differently than most.
When Kyle wanted a tattoo for his 16th birthday last year, the grandmother he calls mom fretted that he wanted some skull-and-crossbones monstrosity and wasn’t going to allow it.
What he wanted on him forever, though, was the logo of Big Brothers Big Sisters, for whom Scott serves as director of recruitment in Kansas City.
“It’s right over my heart,” he said. “I wanted something that was going to mean something for the rest of my life, and Big Brothers Big Sisters was really close to my heart.”
He added: “Big Brothers Big Sisters probably saved my life, really.”
Kyle didn’t mean this literally.
Only in the ways a life is made or not.
In knowing he is loved and having structure and discipline and the assurance that somehow in the end everything is going to be OK.
In understanding possibilities — he now thinks about college — and that his life is not about who wasn’t there for him but who is.
His now-swelling extended family was thrilled to be at the game Friday night, his first in two years, as Staley romped 35-0 over Blue Springs.
It mattered not at all that he played sparingly, on kickoff and kickoff return teams and, finally, at linebacker in the fourth quarter.
LeAnn, 34, and Scott Cruce, 40, were here, with their two young boys, Landon and Kellen, whom Kyle has embraced as his own little brothers.
LeAnn’s enthusiastic mother, Linda, was here, too, eager to see Kyle simply participate. Just as she had been at a wrestling match last school year when she hurried down to the mat afterward and barged in among wrestlers in a handshake line to hug Kyle.
Among family members, Kyle’s older brother, Chris, was home on leave from the Air Force before going to Turkey in mid-September.
Somehow Cambrice’s grandmother, Ronne Bechtel, even made it here, with help from Uncle Mike, days after she’d been released from the hospital following blood poisoning.
After the game, with Bechtel clad in a Staley sweatshirt Linda Cruce had bought her, Scott Cruce helped her down the stairs to where Kyle could spot her.
Kyle hurried to hug her and seized the opportunity to introduce her to his girlfriend, cheerleader Kailey Edmisten.
All was right in his world, one that was in flux just over a year ago.
Some tell LeAnn Cruce this story reminds them of “The Blind Side,” the book and movie about future NFL lineman Michael Oher. There’s a smidgen of truth in that.
Among the differences, though, is that Kyle isn’t likely NFL-bound and that the Cruces nurtured him for nearly a decade before he moved in.
It started with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, a topic near and dear to about anyone who’s been involved as a big or a little.
Wanting male role models in the lives of the boys she’d suddenly been left with at age 51 while working full time, Bechtel of Shawnee responded to an advertisement for the program.
Chris got a brother first, an experience he said was “wonderful,” so 7-year-old Kyle craved one, too.
Shazam, enter Scott Cruce, whose presence in Kyle’s life was indelible from the start.
Think the little things don’t matter?
“The first time I ever met him, he came over and we went to Sonic: I got, like, a red slushy and he got an ocean breeze thing, and we talked for a while,” Kyle said. “The next week we went and saw the movie ‘Cars.’”
Kyle had never had a baseball glove, so Scott Cruce bought him one. They’d go to the park, where Scott would hit him grounders or they’d play catch.
Then Scott encouraged Bechtel to let Kyle play organized sports for the lessons of hard work and teamwork and to have coaches as mentors, too.
As Kyle remembers it, he was one of the worst players at the Football & Cheerleading Club of Johnson County.
He loved it, anyway. And the more he played, the better he got.
By 10th grade, he was good enough to earn a varsity letter at Shawnee Mission North. His bio on his Twitter account would say, simply, “Football is life.”
Then Kyle got his grades in the second semester of his sophomore year, during which Bechtel had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
In the wake of her illness, Kyle didn’t always go to school or do his homework. He seemed to get migraine headaches more often, and he was uncharacteristically argumentative.
“I don’t even know what I was mad at,” he said.
Knowing he’d be academically ineligible surely was part of it, though.
The thought “might have come up” that he’d never get to share the camaraderie of football again.
Then what Scott Cruce called “kind of a whirlwind situation” for Kyle changed just as rapidly last fall.
The intervention of the Cruces was one element of that.
Another was the care of Staley football coach Fred Bouchard and his staff and wrestling coach Gary Mayabb and others.
Although Kyle was ineligible to play football, he won over Bouchard with how he practiced and helped on game days, and attended every activity and meshed with the team.
Entwined with that new belonging, Kyle earned a 4.0 GPA his first semester and a 3.875 GPA in the spring.
Fewer distractions were part of that, Kyle said. So was the sense of trying to regain something he’d lost.
But it helped, too, to be nudged and nagged about basic responsibilities like going to class and doing homework.
“Probably needed just a little bit of direction,” said Bouchard, who knows something about that as the father of five adopted children entering his 30th and final season. “And doesn’t everybody just need somebody to say, ‘Go!’ , unconditionally cheering them on?”
The tribulations of youth and circumstance didn’t just vanish, of course, when Kyle moved in with the Cruces.
For LeAnn, it meant “you really have to rewire your brain,” and the Cruces often have called friends or coaches for advice on dealing with teenage habits.
“I’d love to say that we haven’t butted heads over the last year,” Scott Cruce said, “but there have been a couple of times where we have.”
That’s mighty minor on the grand scale, though, not to mention that it would be unnatural otherwise.
The crucial thing is this:
“They’ve been going through it all with me,” Kyle said. “High points, low points. It’s awesome.”
When he had to cut weight for wrestling, he remembers LeAnn Cruce watching him eat soup and counting out chips he was eating as she tried “to make sure I had enough to eat and I could still work out.”
When he was doing pushups by the heater in his room at 3 a.m. to melt himself down for a weigh-in, he remembers she “busted” through his door to grill him on what he was doing.
As she thought of the moment, she smiled and explained that she’s always awake because she has children in her house.
Including the one who came in that “huge bassinet,” whose story is not about being left on a doorstep but being taken in … and thus whose story is only beginning.
A story that’s also a reminder of the good sports can do, one life at a time.
“When you feel like people are really there for you,” Kyle said, “it’s just a great feeling. And you want to succeed for them, too.”