The cabinet doors above Oklahoma volleyball coach Santiago Restrepo's desk inside Howard McCasland Field House are covered with pictures. In fact, it's impossible to tell the color of his desk due to the sheer volume of photographs.
In almost every picture is a boy, Restrepo's 9-year old son, Diego. Some of the pictures include Restrepo and his wife, Heidi, but there are a few that include another little boy, who, every time he pops up in a picture is smiling from ear-to-ear, full of happiness and contentment.
It's hard to imagine 4 ½-year old Javier Restrepo, armed with such a captivating smile, could be the source of so many emotions for the Restrepo family – happiness, sadness, and ultimately, grief.
Javi, as his family affectionately called him, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at age 1 1/2, and passed away July 31, 2009 after a three-year battle with the disease. Even though Javi's life on this earth was short, his story is still going, and the Oklahoma volleyball team is making sure it never has an ending.
Restrepo sits behind his desk, which is littered with notes and other papers with volleyball jargon scribbled all over them. The Sooners are preparing to take on No. 8 Texas Sunday afternoon, a tall order since the Longhorns swept Oklahoma in Austin Sept. 22. Since the Sooners and Longhorns aren't on the friendliest of terms in any sport, it's annually the biggest home match of the season, and normally the biggest attendance draw as well.
However, this game has added emphasis as it is also the Sooners' annual Pledge for the Cure match, an event that is designated to remember Javi's life, as well as encourage fans to donate to cancer research either through monetary donations, or paying for autographs from Oklahoma coaches such as football coach Bob Stoops, men's basketball coach Lon Kruger, and women's basketball coach Sherri Coale.
This is the fourth year the Sooners have had this special night, but even though the tribute is touching, three years after Javi's death, Restrepo still feels the pain of loss.
"It doesn't get any better," Restrepo said. "Obviously losing my son is a bitter taste in my mouth. Getting to honor my son in that game is very dear to our hearts and very important to my family. It actually gets tougher because it's a week you are remembering all the things that he brought to our family and how neat it was with him around."
Restrepo feels pain due to the loss of his son, but he experiences as much pain watching his wife and son deal with the same emotions as himself – especially his son, Diego – who terribly "misses his buddy," Restrepo said.
"When he's playing with somebody else, being the big brother to those friends of his, you can tell he misses him," Restrepo said, tears filling his eyes. "The other week he went to bed, and he said to his mother, ‘I feel lonely.' Obviously part of it is not having Javi there for him. That part is tough."
Restrepo said he talks to Diego about how he's feeling or even shows him a video that pays tribute to Javi from time to time, but sometimes, Diego simply asks to stop watching.
"He sees that part is gone, so he doesn't necessarily want to be sad or want to see it because it reminds him of the sadness of not having him (Javi) there," Restrepo said.
This story is not one of just pain and grief; there's plenty of hope and inspiration provided by those who have rallied around the Restrepo family, from the volleyball team, to the OU athletic department, even the Norman community as a whole. The three previous Pledge for the Cure matches raised over $10,000 for cancer research thanks to the donations of fans. Members of the Norman community held a fundraising event for the Restrepos to help the family pay some of their hospital bills. However, the biggest contributions around Javi's death came from within the OU athletic department.
When Javi had to have a liver transplant, the Restrepo family had to drive to Delaware for the procedure, and then back and forth for doctor's appointments every few months. Bob Stoops would have none of that, enlisting a private plane to take them from Oklahoma to Delaware and back. He also sent them on the plane to Florida so Javi could enjoy some time at the beach. Sherri Coale organized a family photo shoot for the Restrepos. The athletic department as a whole organized a sports day for Javi. He played football, basketball, soccer, and baseball on each of the university fields with members of each respective team. When Javi died, athletic director Joe Castiglione paid to fly family members to Norman for the funeral.
"If it wasn't for the OU family, the athletic department, the supporting staff, I don't know what we would do," Restrepo admitted. "We went through all that with Javi, and everyone has stepped up to the plate and beyond on what we've needed. From the AD all the way to the lowest possible person in the department, they were all so giving, so helpful, so there for us.
"It's incredible to see the atmosphere and how family-oriented everyone is and how they've rallied around that."
The untold heroes of the situation are the members of the volleyball team, who have taken Restrepo's burden and made it their own. There are decals on the court at McCasland Field House that honor Javi's life with his favorite flower – the sunflower – and his favorite color, orange. The team wears a patch version of the decal on their uniforms as well. A picture of Javi hangs in the team locker room, reminding the players how precious life is, and how much more important it is than the game they play.
Only two players remain from the team that experienced Javi's death first hand – seniors Morgan Reynolds and Maria Fernanada. While Reynolds wasn't in Norman yet when Javi died, Fernanda was, and while she never had the opportunity to meet the boy in person, she was able to be there as a support for those that did.
"It was hard because I didn't know what to say or how to react around the coaches when they were obviously going through a hard time," Fernanda said. "I hadn't been with them for that much time. I think it was good that they knew I was there even though I didn't know what to do; they felt like we were the family."
For Reynolds, her first experience with the situation came on the very first day of practice with the team.
"The first thing Santiago did for our team meeting we have first day, he showed us a video of Javier that they had made to remember him," Reynolds recalled. "It was him, Santiago, Heidi and Diego just hanging out around the house and stuff. It was very sad for all of us to watch, but it was so neat that Santiago would share that moment with us because it was the only time he ever played it.
"I immediately just felt this bond and overwhelming feeling of family. That's what we all were and we were all there for Santiago, even though I had not been there beforehand to hear about their suffering and everything else throughout that preseason."
Freshman Julia Doyle, the Sooners' new starting setter this season, is new to the situation, but heard about it from one of her coaches in high school during the recruiting process. After researching what happened, and discovering how the team has taken ownership of the situation, Doyle realized this Oklahoma team was about more than just winning volleyball games; they were a family.
Now, with Fernanda and Reynolds on their way out at the end of the season, it's up to Doyle and the rest of the underclassmen to continue the tradition that has been established with the annual Pledge for the Cure match.
"They stress the importance of this match and playing for him and also, they also make sure everyone feels comfortable and realizes we're all family," Doyle said. "We'll continue what they leave behind. Even though we weren't here, we understand what we have to do and what it means to our coaches and Santiago and everyone. We'll still understand the meaning of team and family."
That's what sets this situation apart from other similar happenings across the country. This wasn't a tragic incident that went away over time. No, the memory of Javi Restrepo lives on through the actions of a special group of women and his father, committed to making sure that fewer families have to go through what he and his family have gone through the past three years. The biggest example of that commitment is the Pledge for the Cure match Sunday afternoon, which will be broadcast to the nation on ESPNU.
"First and foremost it's an honor to our son and his legacy, what he meant to us," Restrepo said about Sunday's match. "It's as simple as that. Two, it's just raising awareness throughout the nation; raising awareness throughout the nation of how devastating it is and how everybody has to step up to the plate to donate money and help everyone be aware of it. If they see families that are suffering, it's very important they support those families, whether it's neighbors or family members, it's important to be there for them."
Restrepo misses his son, his "Mini-Me" as Reynolds described Javi. His family misses him. Yet, despite the fact they only had the opportunity to experience life with Javi for four and a half years, none of them would trade it for anything.
"We just put it all in our faith," Restrepo said. "Our priest, a very good friend of ours that married us, he came to bury our son. He asked us, ‘If God would give you Javi for four and a half years, would you take him?' Obviously the answer is yes, we would take him for four and a half years. He's in a better place and is protecting others."
And the team is protecting him; protecting his legacy which, for a boy so young, and a life so short, is bigger than anyone could ever properly describe.