Cole Clifton would have been a senior this year.
Clifton was a long-time ball boy for the Wichita Northwest High boys soccer team and coach Bobby Bribiesca. But on March 17, 2014, he died after a three-year fight with leukemia.
His death hasn’t been forgotten. Since his passing, Northwest has worn warmup shirts that say “Team Cole.” He has become part of the DNA of the Grizzly program, Bribiesca said.
“He was just a fighter, and even when he lost his hair, he never gave up and was still smiling the whole time,” the coach said. “He was looking to play here someday.
“He’s my lucky charm. When I see that ‘Team Cole,’ it gives us more of an edge to play better because he really set the standard for us.”
Clifton’s brother Austin, is an assistant coach under Bribiesca now. He saw Cole at his worst. And even at his lowest, he was still that same happy, energetic kid, Austin said.
“He would never complain once,” Austin said. “He had lines sticking out of his chest, and he would change all the tubes himself. He just never saw the bad side of things. Never once did he ask me, ‘Why me?’ “
Austin was a senior on Northwest’s 21-0 state championship team in 2011. That Grizzlies team is regarded as one of the greatest in Kansas soccer history, and Austin was at the head of it. He finished with 28 goals, was named to the Eagle’s All-Metro team. He was All-State. He was an All-American.
And Cole was an all-time fan.
“He was at every game,” Austin said. “If he couldn’t come outside, my mom would pull up in the car by the benches.”
Cole went through ups and downs, in and out of remission, but he never missed a game. Even at his sickest, he delivered the game ball. A helicopter flew in carrying Cole, and Austin went to meet his brother at midfield.
But as the season wore on, Cole’s condition continued to improve, Austin said. He said Cole was one of the driving forces behind that state championship team. He was cancer-free and started growing his hair back.
“Once the final whistle blew in Topeka, he was the first one on the field,” Bribiesca said. “He was running around the field, screaming and yelling. You could just see how much it meant to him.”
Soon after that final, Austin was off to Fort Hays State. A year later, Cole was back in the hospital. He needed a bone marrow transplant.
Doctors told his loved ones that there was a 25 percent chance someone in the family would be a match. Austin was in that 25 percent. He went in for a two-hour procedure in Kansas City. The doctors laid Austin over a pillow with his back up. They went into his back with a needle Austin that remembers being almost a foot long.
He was in a wheelchair that night and vomited a lot because of the nausea, but he said he was back to practice soon after.
Cole was in remission for about two years during his fight, but after almost five years of treatment, the leukemia took over and he had a stroke.
Austin and the family struggled with Cole’s death. Cole looked up to Austin. They were close. Losing Cole sent Austin into depression, and he saw a therapist.
“I had to become an adult on my own,” he said. “There were a lot of nights where I was 200 miles away wondering, ‘Is he going to make it through the night?’
“I was one of those people that says, ‘Oh, I don’t have any problems,’ but no, it felt great just to talk to a stranger. I went from a kid that thought he had the world in his hands to a point where I learned life can change just like that.”
After graduating from Fort Hays State, Austin got a tattoo on his right wrist. It depicts an orange ribbon for leukemia awareness. Beneath is date of Cole’s death.
Every time Austin looks down, he sees it. He said it is the only tattoo he will ever get.
After serving as an assistant sports information director at Fort Hays, Austin decided he wanted to get back into high school soccer. He had won two club championships and multiple tournaments and been to the NCAA tournament, but that state championship was the accomplishment he relished most, he said.
The junior varsity coach Arthur Shook told Austin he needed a para-professional teacher. Austin asked if a coaching position was open, too, and it was. He was in.
Bribiesca has been coaching at Northwest for 39 years. He is 69. At a recent doctor’s appointment, his doctor told him a man his age had “no business” kicking a soccer ball anymore, but Bribiesca can’t stay away.
He said his retirement is coming, but the scariest part is having to turn over the daily operations to someone else. Bribiesca said Austin, 24, could be that someone else.
With everything he and his family has gone through with Cole’s story, he might be a good pick.
“There was a lot of bad stuff,” Austin said. “But a lot of good stuff, too.”
For now, Bribiesca and Clifton spearhead one of Wichita’s most storied soccer programs. They work well together. Bribiesca brings the experience; Clifton adds the the emotion and is someone the kids can relate to.
There are memories of Cole scattered around the Northwest soccer field. The most obvious is a plaque at the ticket gate that reminds the two coaches of the kid they loved.
“I cry when I think about it,” Bribiesca said. “He was a winner. I think about him when I walk in here all the time. He touched lives.
“He’s here in spirit all over the place.”