By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– Little Andy Kosmala never got the chance to follow in his older sister’s footsteps and play soccer at East Lincoln, yet his footprints are all over the program and through it his legacy lives on.
Kosmala, who in 2008 passed away from a brain tumor at the young age of 12, and his family inspired Mustangs coach Jason Dragoon in such a way that he began a benefit soccer tournament to help those who need it most.
Today, East Lincoln will host North Lincoln, South Iredell and South Point in the four team, two day, seventh annual Andy Kosmala Memorial Tournament.
The tournament began in 2007 as a way to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Andy’s name. But after seeing the way Andy’s family fought their way through his illness with their love and faith, Dragoon decided to make the event’s focus micro local.
“I think I was really moved by how crazy it was that they would have a 12-year-old with this situation. I was moved with their spiritualism. I’ve never seen people of faith like that,” Dragoon said. “It changed my entire view on faith –– everything was left in God’s hands.”
In 2011, Dragoon began sponsoring an individual from the East Lincoln community who has been through a similar ordeal as Andy.
That year, the tournament sponsored Gabby Villareal, now a sophomore at East Lincoln who has defeated leukemia. In 2012 the sponsor was Miranda Eckard, a junior at East Lincoln who is currently battling a rare form of cancer. And in 2013 Dragoon chose to help the family of Mike Cadenhead, who is a big supporter of Mustangs athletics, has children who attend the school and has beaten liver cancer.
To date, Dragoon said the tournament has raised close to $8,000 for those in need the past three years, but that’s not the sole reason he does it.
It’s about a sense of community, and helping those who need it most.
“I try not to focus on the money,” Dragoon said. “It’s about why we’re doing it.”
“Most of the cancer things are general now,” Dragoon added, referring to the “pot” that money raised for cancer research goes into and is then divided out. “If we can pick someone from our community and recognize, then that makes it special.
“It’s been an amazing experience.”
Dragoon said the actions of Andy’s older sister, Emily –– the oldest of four children and now a student at the University of North Carolina –– inspired him to use his girls soccer team as a positive influence for the community.
Dragoon said Emily would tend to her younger brothers, Daniel and Matty, while her parents, Jim and Eileen, were with Andy at Duke University Medical Center.
In short, Emily, who played for Dragoon, was forced to grow up and be more responsible than a high school student should be, so Dragoon felt the rest of his players should as well.
“How can my soccer team do something? How can we honor what a great kid Emily is and help her family with what they’re going through?” Dragoon recalled as asking himself. “You’re going to live life with a whole different level of awareness. I think it’s changed our program, our teams.”
With Emily now in college, Daniel a sophomore at East Lincoln and Matty in his first year of middle school, the school, in conjunction with the Kosmala family, has turned to helping others.
This year, Dragoon has expanded the benefit from one family to two. Laura Bodenheimer, a 2007 graduate of the school, is currently in her third fight with cancer, and Beth Mason, a mother of four whom all graduated from East Lincoln and a 1974 graduate herself, is battling liver cancer and will be the guests of honor at this year’s tournament.
“We feel like these are truly East Lincoln community members that we can honor and recognize for the tournament,” Dragoon said “Being able to hand them even a dollar is something that we want to do.”
South Iredell and South Point will open the event today at 5 p.m., and county rivals East Lincoln and North Lincoln will play around 7. On Saturday, North Lincoln and South Point will play at 5 and East Lincoln and South Iredell at 7.
Admission is $5, and there will be T-shirts available for sale, along with a raffle. Concessions will be available for purchase, and all proceeds will be split evenly between the two families.
Dragoon is hoping this year’s tournament is bigger than the first six.
“It’s the community coming out. That’s what makes it what it is,” he said. “I love doing it.”