Fly High Michele, Love Always Ray Ray

Photo by Bill Taylor.

On Tuesday, April 10 my high school’s beloved, lone athletic trainer Michele Wink was fine. Wednesday morning, right after my early soccer practice, I got a call from my mom and just like that she was gone. 

Fortunately, I have not experienced a lot of loss in my family or close circle. The only exception really is Grandpa P., a wonderful man who succumbed to lung cancer the day before I started sixth grade.

When you experience death as a little kid, it isn’t really the same. I only saw Grandpa P. once a year, because he lived in Florida. Even though everyone else knew that his death was imminent, I was young enough to think that he was going to get better simply because he was a good enough man to deserve it. Even when my dad left to go spend his last days with him, I still didn’t get it until he was actually gone.

I still think about my grandpa sometimes and wish I had known better and spent more time getting to know the man when I still had the opportunity, but for the most part his death and my experience with it, makes sense to me. He was old and sick, and I was too young to see the end drawing near.

Michele’s death doesn’t make sense to me yet. Michele was 45-years-old and in good health. One minute she was fine, the next she wasn’t. With Grandpa P, there was cancer. There was a reason. There was no reason for this.

Although I knew Michele beyond the walls of Oswego High School, my relationship with her isn’t really that important and is certainly not what defines her. It is very rare in life that you meet someone who truly treats everyone equally, but Michele was one of those people.

Michele bled blue and white more than I ever did in my countless years of playing soccer, basketball, softball and lacrosse with “Oswego” spelled out across my chest. She knew every athlete by name, which sports they played, what their positions were and how every season was going. Even if you weren’t an athlete, she knew your name and probably even had a nickname for you. All the Bucs got one (mine was “Ray Ray”). 

Michele was truly our biggest fan. She was a part of our school district for over 21 years, hired in 1996. She made every single person feel like they were her favorite athlete, coach or team. To her you were the most important person in the world. 

Unfortunately I was unable to attend Michele’s services a few weekends ago and I still get a stomach ache every time I think about my absence. However, I can still sleep at night because Michele gave out nothing but love, and everyone knew how much she loved them and she knew how much she was loved right back.

This is actually the second article I’ve written about this incredible woman. The first was a full-length feature published in The Buccaneer Bulletin, my high school’s student newspaper. Admittedly, that one’s a lot more fun to read. She also received the yearbook dedication one year, an honor typically reserved for retiring faculty only.

My brother Jason is currently a freshman at my old high school (God help him). He is actually a rising track star who was just getting to know Michele and had already fallen in love with her. A few months ago, he found my signature on the wall of her office adjacent to many other Bucs of the past. The other day, he told me that my picture is still in her office.

I can still hear her yelling at me for every time I got kicked in the head in soccer or rolled an ankle in basketball and didn’t go see her out of fear of being benched (Brian, Allison and Dan can probably echo her sentiments after dealing with me for the past three years). More loudly, I can still hear her screaming “YEAH, RAY RAY!” at the top of her lungs after every goal, assist, caused turnover or pretty much any positive thing imaginable during a soccer or lacrosse game.

The first game I played without Michele in this world was against Buff State just three days after I learned of her passing. It was probably the coldest game of the season and I was, as usual, the only player on either team without any under armour. 

The cold doesn’t really bother me that much during lacrosse, with the exception of my hands. Even with gloves on, I’m a huge baby about it and I feel like my fingers are being repeatedly stabbed until they finally freeze and shatter. 

I caught myself thinking about how bad my hands hurt during that game about midway through the first half. Then I thought about Michele. A few minutes went by and suddenly I realized that my hands didn’t feel cold anymore.

I have one year left to call myself a student-athlete – a single soccer season and a single lacrosse season. Michele, I don’t know if any copies of The Oracle are being delivered wherever you are, but if you’re reading this I hope you know that every minute is for you.

There are a lot of sacrifices that come with being a student-athlete. It is a burden that weighs on an individual in more ways than one. But even at my weakest moments, I know that I will always have at least one reason to play these games that I love. That reason is you.