HAMILTON — It was pitch dark when the town of Darby rose early last Friday to welcome Sunshine home.
Some gathered as early as 3 a.m., along the highway and road to offer their support and love to the young man who has been battling Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin’s T-cell Lymphoma for the last year.
By the time the ambulance carrying Jake “Sunshine” Sanders arrived on the outskirts of town, there were hundreds there with signs, smiles and waves.
“There were people lined up all the way to the house,” said Sander’s mother, Debi. “There had to be at least 50 people inside the house. The whole football team was here.
“This is where he wanted to be,” she said. “He just wanted to come home. He was so homesick for Montana, his friends and Darby. He knew this is where he belonged.”
For most of the last year, Sanders has been in treatment — first in Utah and then Houston.
“They did everything they could,” Debi Sanders said. “For a couple of months, we felt like celebrating. He was in line for stem cell treatment, but then things just kind of went downhill. They gave him the option of staying, but he just wanted to come home.”
Sunshine lost his battle Wednesday morning. "He passed away peacefully at 9:57 a.m.," Sanders wrote on her Facebook page.
Jeff Snavely first met Sunshine in Snavely's first year as Darby High’s football coach. Some of the team members had asked if they could start practicing in the summer before the season got underway.
On that first day of those impromptu practices, Snavely asked the young men gathered on the field what positions they needed to fill. Their reply: “We don’t have a center.”
“I looked over at Sunshine. He was kind of pudgy. I told him he was going to be my center,” Snavely remembered. “He told me no way. He said he had no idea how to snap a ball. And, oh my, he was horrible.
“Unbeknownst to me, he went home. He watched some YouTube videos and practiced with his mom and his uncle,” Snavely said. “And when he came back, I said, ‘Well, let’s try this again.’ He told me he didn’t need any more practice. He was snapping like a pro. He had done that on his own.
"Right then and there, I knew he was a special kid.”
When Snavely broke the news to his team that Sunshine was coming home and the prognosis wasn't good, the team decided they wanted to do something to honor him at last Friday’s game in Drummond.
“As a team, we kind of came up with the idea that we would have a missing man formation at the game,” he said. “We would leave the center position open and fill every other position at the start of the game and take a delay of game penalty for it.”
They would also wear lime green armbands that represents Hodgkin’s lymphoma with the number 61 etched both on the bands and on their helmets.
Snavely told Drummond-Philipsburg’s coach, Mike Cutler, about their plan.
When the Titan’s coach told his team about what was to take place, an amazing thing happened. The defending state champions wanted to wear lime green too.
“He said they didn’t want to let us take a penalty,” Snavely said. “They planned to step off sides on the very next play to return the favor.”
Right after that second penalty, both sidelines cleared as the two teams met at the middle of the field to hug each other and shake hands.
“I didn’t know it then, but Mike Cutler had been through cancer,” Snavely said. “He told me it really hit home for him too.
"I have to give all the credit to the kids. It was hard on them. They were playing with a lot of emotion. They wanted to play for Jake. They had his jersey draped over a chair on the sidelines.”
And that support hasn’t stopped with the football team.
On Thursday, Darby’s volleyball team plans to honor Sanders with a Sunshine Night.
“The idea came from the girls,” said Darby Volleyball Coach Sarah Nelson. “They wanted to come up with a way to embrace Sunshine. We usually do a Sprinkle Pink game. In lieu of that, we’re calling Thursday night our Sunshine game. We’re asking everyone to come out in yellow.
“Most people in this community know him and his mother,” Nelson said. “They are wonderful people. We want to try to do things that will make him smile and be happy and feel supported.”
The volleyball team produced a video with them singing “You are my Sunshine” and replaced the final the final words with the sentence, “For our Sunshine, we will play.”
“All of this is student driven, but really the whole community is embracing them,” Nelson said.
Debi Sanders said that love is clear and heartfelt.
“There’s been a steady stream of friends coming by since he came back home,” she said.
His two best friends — Kye McCollaum and Keegan Gallagher — have slept on either side of his bed every night.
“Those three together are just magical,” Sanders said. “Over this last year, when he was being treated in Salt Lake and Houston, it was just the two of us. He wanted to come home and be with his friends. He loves this town. He’s from South Florida, but he would never admit that. Darby is his home.
“We’ve just been blown away by all the support that we’ve received from throughout the valley,” she said. “Darby is an amazing place. I’ve been shocked by the outpouring of support, but I guess I’m not really surprised. People in Darby really do come through for each other.
“That’s why we live here,” she said. “This town is in his blood. This is where he wants to be forever.”
When she and her son first moved from Florida to Darby, Jake had long blonde hair. She remembers asking him if he thought he should cut it since he was moving to Montana.
He told her no. His junior high football coach nicknamed him Sunshine after the character in Remember the Titans.
“Some people don’t even know his real name,” she said. “They’ve always called him Sunshine. That’s who he is. He's just nice to everyone. I saw him get his IV stepped on and yanked out. He told the nurse thank you when she put it back in.
“He’s extremely humble. I’ve never heard him say one negative thing through this whole ordeal. I asked him how can he be so nice through all of this.
“His answer was the best. He said ‘why be a dick?’” Sanders said. “I don’t believe in tattoos, but I think I’m going to get one that says just that. That’s why everyone calls him Sunshine. If we all thought like that, what an amazing world this would be.”