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When Fortuna High School football coach Mike Benbow bent down to speak with Bailey Foley last Thursday, it wasn’t clear to him if his senior running back knew who he was.

“I reached in and said, ‘Hey, we are going to bring you another medal,’” Benbow said. “I don’t know if he really knew it was me. It was the first time he spoke since I saw him on the sideline.”

“On the sideline” was Aug. 25, when the Huskies were in Santa Rosa to play Cardinal Newman. Late in that game, Foley, a standout two-way player, complained of cramps, began having seizures and was rushed to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He was put into a medically induced coma. A portion of his skull was removed to help take pressure off of his swollen brain. He suffered a stroke. He’s been hospitalized ever since.

He’s now at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where he is in therapy daily to learn how to walk, speak and swallow. His parents, Tara Johnson and Sage Foley, have been at their son’s side for months.

And while Foley is physically in Oakland, he has been an emotional fixture for the Huskies in their most remarkable season.

Team captain and senior J.B. Lewis carries Foley’s jersey to midfield before every game for the coin toss. Foley’s helmet is on the Fortuna sideline throughout every game. Foley is in the Huskies’ prayers, literally and figuratively.

But when he went down, it was not assured the Huskies would play on. So devastating was Foley’s condition and the impact on his team that there was some soul searching in the hours and days after Aug. 25.

“When his mom showed up at the hospital, I was in charge of him,” Benbow said. “It was really, really hard.”

Benbow has been teaching and coaching for nearly a quarter century. He’s a Fortuna grad. He’s been head coach for 10 years. But seeing Bailey Foley stricken cast a pall of doubt over all of it.

“I drove from Santa Rosa trying to figure out what is appropriate, what should be done,” he said. “There is no rule book on how you should handle this.”

“I really, honestly, questioned if I wanted to coach again,” he said.

The players met at Lewis’ house. That week, one player walked away from the sport.

“It was understandable, it really was,” Lewis said of the departure. “It was a near-death situation. It brought up the questions and things that often you kind of push away. Talking about it helped.”

Lewis said to see a teammate and friend go down was terrifying.

“We had no idea what was happening. It was scary, it really was. Those of us who prayed, prayed,” he said. “It was a life-changing moment. You really saw how fragile we can be, in a way.”

And the players talked about that. They also talked about how to carry on without Foley while also keeping him with them.

“He went 100 percent each play. He would fly around each play,” Lewis said. “He was one of those guys who is a great competitor, a great athlete. He’s always been what coach Benbow would call one of the ‘dudes.’ He was kind of a stud on the field.”

So the Huskies took Foley’s lead.

“We would keep playing and keep fighting, knowing that that is what he is going to do,” Lewis said. “He keeps fighting down there and getting back to doing things that we take for granted.”

So the Huskies fought on.

After losing to Cardinal Newman the night Foley went down, the Huskies ran off five consecutive wins before falling to rival Eureka in the game that decided the Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 champions. They would not lose again.

They got the No. 4 seed in the North Coast Section Division 4 tournament and promptly crushed Salesian College Prep 61-0 in the opening round. The quarterfinals were more of the same: Fortuna 60, Moreau Catholic 6.

The semifinal round was something different altogether. Fortuna faced St. Bernard’s, the No. 1 seed and one of the best teams in Humboldt County.

“The county came out for that one,” Benbow said. “That was a battle.”

The game was sealed when Fortuna stopped St. Bernard’s with a defensive stand against a two-point conversion attempt.

“When we stopped the two-point conversion?” Lewis said. “That was something very special. It was something that was once in a lifetime.”

Final score: Fortuna 34, St. Bernard’s 33.

But before Fortuna could take on No. 7 Hercules, they had to again rally for a teammate. Senior lineman Brendon “Woody” Harralson’s father died of cancer just after being helped onto the field for senior night. He was memorialized on Saturday, Dec. 2, the day of the NCS title game. The whole team and coaching staff showed up.

“They’ve been forced to kind of grow up,” said Fortuna High principal Clint Duey, who pulls double duty as the Huskies’ offensive coordinator.

“I really think having his teammates and those people there is a distraction and that helps a kid cope in that situation,” Duey said.

“It was obviously very hard on him,” Lewis said. “But he kept on despite what was going on at home. You could really see how strong that kid is. It was inspirational in itself.”

Hours after Harralson’s funeral, the Huskies won again: Fortuna 44, Hercules 0. They were section champions.

Next it was a win in the CIF Northern California Division 5-A regional title game — a 34-20 victory against Bear River and a ticket to the state title game in Anaheim.

But first, the team went to see Foley. On the way to Southern California, the caravan of rented vans and SUVs stopped in Oakland to see the teammate who many had not laid eyes on since the night of Aug. 25, when he was wheeled off the field and into an ambulance.

The team gathered in the backyard of the hospital’s family house.

They brought Foley his NCS medals and his regional bowl medal. They gifted him a letterman jacket.

“It was bittersweet,” Lewis said. “It was hard to see him in that condition, just because you knew how he was before. But seeing him smile and hearing him talk a little bit — he talked a little bit quiet, you had to lean down close.

“When you left, as you look back on it, it made you smile,” he said. “He was there; there was still Bailey.”

Both Benbow and Duey said the visit was uplifting because they had both seen Foley a number of times since Aug. 25 and his gains were showing.

“I have gone a few times and seen him with my wife and some of the coaches. I’ve seen him progress,” Duey said. “For most of the boys, this was the first time they saw him. That was very hard, to see him now compared to what he was when he was playing with them.”

But Duey and Benbow emphasized how far Foley had come.

“It was really hard in the sense that a lot of our kids were just kind of taken aback,” Benbow said. “To me and the coaches and his mom, he is such a long way from where he was.”

Johnson said the visit was “full of love.”

“He’s been a big part of their journey also,” she said. “At first we were kind of concerned because the doctors thought it might be too overwhelming.”

Nope.

“He loved it,” she said. “He loved it.”

As the team headed south, Johnson went north to ready the family home for Foley’s return. Johnson thinks her son will be back in Fortuna after New Year’s.

Hard flooring has been installed so Foley can maneuver a wheelchair and walker, measurements have been taken for a wheelchair ramp and a weight set was brought into the living room so Foley can do therapy at home. A hospital bed has been ordered.

On Saturday night, Foley and his dad watched his Huskies play in the CIF State Division 5-A title game against the Katella High Knights.

Once again, the storyline seems improbable: Katella has 2,670 students. Fortuna has 800. Glover Stadium, where the game was played, is 3.6 miles from the Knights’ campus. Fortuna’s drive: 652 miles.

It went on. Clinging to a 28-27 lead at halftime, the Huskies’ quarterback, Zac Claus, got injured. In stepped Lewis to guide his team through a crucial third quarter before Claus could return. The Huskies outscored the Knights 26-6 in the second half.

Final score: 54-33. The Huskies, the No. 4 seed in their section, had brought home the first team title in the history of Fortuna High School.

“It’s not cliché, it’s what happened,” Benbow said. “I can’t describe it. I wish I could put my finger on it. It’s amazing what happened.”

After a dinner of pizza and a stop at Disneyland, the Huskies’ caravan rolled into downtown Fortuna Monday night, replete with a police and fire escort, to find Main Street shut down. Guesses put attendance of the “welcome party” total at 500 people. There was a stage, proclamations were read, champions were heralded.

“It was the worst beginning with the greatest ending,” Benbow said.

He knows the journey for Foley isn’t over. Nor is it over for Harralson or any of his boys. But Saturday night’s win certainly seemed like just desserts for a bunch of athletes who gave their all and went through a ton this season.

In all of his years of coaching, Benbow said he has always emphasized team as family. The weekly team dinners? They are always held at his house. This season his philosophy was both tested and rewarded.

“Every year I get a new set of sons,” he said. “They will be my kids for the rest of my life.”

Lewis, a stellar student who is pretty sure he’s played his last football game, said the family bond, the brotherhood, got him and the rest of the Huskies through when everything seemed so dark.

He described it like this: When he was leaving the hospital grounds after seeing Foley for the first time since that night in August, he did something he never would have before.

“As we were leaving, we were saying goodbye. I just said, ‘I love you, brother. Keep fighting,’ and as I was hugging him he said, ‘I love you too,’” Lewis said. “That is something that before what happened I don’t think we would have ever said to each other. Guys in high school, you don’t really say that to each other.”

Life can change in the blink of an eye, but some things will stay with a guy forever.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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