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One final pass to number 82

Post Independent/Kelley CoxMembers of the St John Middle School Panthers football team pay their respects at the gravesite of their teammate Joe Cain last Tuesday, Oct. 11, in Battlement Mesa.
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ASPEN ” The most impressive story to come out of last week’s eighth-grade football game wasn’t that Aspen beat Parachute, 18-12, in overtime to complete an undefeated season.

More stirring than Aspen’s success was that the Parachute team took the field at all. That morning, on Tuesday, Oct. 11, the team said goodbye to teammate Joe Cain, 14, at a memorial service that drew a crowd of 1,000 at Grand Valley High School.

Against the Skiers, the Parachute team opted to honor Cain with a moment of silence before kickoff as well as a halftime ceremony to retire Cain’s No. 82 jersey. Aspen coach Brian Hightower also donated an Aspen No. 82 jersey to Cain’s parents, Mike and Deb.



The most touching tribute came during the game, however. In the first quarter on Parachute’s opening offensive possession, the Parachute quarterback rolled out on first down, then threw a long ball deep to where Joe ” a wide receiver ” would have been running his route for that particular play. When the ball fell to the turf downfield, the stadium announcer declared “Pass complete to No. 82, Joe Cain.”

“He just loved football,” said Deb Cain, who urged school officials not to cancel the final game of the season after her son’s death. “He was real high-energy all the time.”



Joe died at 7:22 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, at Children’s Hospital in Denver. He had undergone emergency stomach surgery earlier that day at Grand River Medical Center in Rifle before being airlifted to Denver.

Deb Cain declined to discuss the cause of her son’s death in detail, but she did say that the emergency surgery was performed after her son went into shock and lost consciousness Wednesday. Joe had gone to the hospital earlier in the day complaining of stomach pain.

That Joe lived 14 years was amazing in itself.

Soon after Joe was born, doctors told the Cains that their son wouldn’t likely make it to his first birthday. He was born with nasal stenosis ” a narrowing of the air passage ” that required a tracheotomy, followed by a later surgery to connect part of Joe’s stomach to his esophagus. He also had heart problems as an infant, which led to more surgery.

“All of his surgeries up until his last two were before he was a year old,” Deb Cain said. “He had major heart problems, and his heart stopped beating a number of times [as an infant]. He always had major complications from surgeries, too. He was Flight for Lifed several times. Joe just had a really hard life, medically.”

Joe’s most recent medical ailment ” before the Oct. 5 emergency surgery ” came in fourth grade when he was diagnosed with a tumor in his left ankle.

After surgery to remove the tumor, he missed the entire summer baseball season before his fifth-grade year. Another tumor was discovered on the same ankle, which ended up being benign, but doctors again performed surgery and told Joe he couldn’t participate in sports during fifth grade.

“That was really hard on him,” Deb Cain said. “It ended up being benign, but they had to take his whole ankle. They replaced it with this bone cement. It was no sports at all in fifth grade.”

Despite his physical disabilities, Joe’s parents never let their son feel sorry for himself. Doctors also told the Cains that Joe would probably have brain damage because of all the times his heart stopped beating as an infant, but Joe was an honor-roll student in middle school.

“We never let him play the victim card,” Deb Cain said. “We never let him feel sorry for himself. We always said, ‘We’re not going to do the old-poor-Joe thing.’ He was an awesome, awesome gift to us. He was just so compassionate to other kids and just had a real zest for life.”

Joe’s mother said the tributes at the football game were the perfect way for his teammates and coaches to honor their teammate. She also commended the Aspen players and coaches for celebrating their final win with respect to the grieving players on the opposite sideline.

“After the game, the Aspen coach told his players that they could do their celebrating on the bus,” Deb Cain said. “I thought that was very respectful. I was proud of our team for playing so well on such an emotional day, but I was also proud of the way the other team honored Joe.”

Contact Nate Peterson: npeterson@aspentimes.com


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