Football has been a welcome distraction for Caleb Adams.

For the past couple of months, Adams, a senior defensive lineman and linebacker for Malakoff, has had a singular focus: getting to the state championship.

The Tigers have achieved it, reaching the final game for the first time in school history. Malakoff will get a rematch with Grandview, a team it lost to 28-7 during the regular season, at 7 p.m. Thursday at AT&T Stadium.

Win or lose, the season, as well as Adams’ high school football career, will end and Adams will be forced to reflect. For him, that means more than the plays that led or didn’t lead to a title.

Adams lost his sister, Karen, to a battle with cancer on Oct. 21. She was 15. Football, as any passion does, served as a channel for him to pour his energy into. It’s why Kacy Leis, the mother of Adams’ girlfriend and whom he has lived with since August, has prayed all playoffs for the run to continue.

“Caleb hasn’t dealt with it yet,” she said. “He hasn’t had time. As long as football keeps going, he doesn’t have time. Friday kind of scares me because I know it’ll all be over and he’s not going to have a choice but to look up and say, ‘This has been quite the senior semester.’”

A younger Caleb Adams stands with his sister, Karen. (Photo courtesy of Caleb Adams)

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Karen discovered the cancer near the end of the school year in 2016. She finished school early that year and decided she wanted to visit her grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi.

Near the end of the visit, Leis received a call from Adams’ mother. Something was wrong with Karen and she needed to get to Jackson. Leis helped gather all of the kids – Adams has two younger brothers and a younger sister – and drove to Jackson with her.

There, they discovered a tumor in her esophagus too large to remove.

“They put her on strong doses of steroids,” Leis said. “Karen is the most amazing child. She was 13 and every surgery she had, biopsies, all that they had to do without any anesthesia because the tumor was the size of a softball and it would have closed her esophagus up completely if they put her on anesthesia. She stayed awake through all of it.”

Karen was transferred to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, where she started chemotherapy. Although it was tough, she eventually reached a point where her treatments were only once a month. She was close to remission, Leis said.

The Adams decided to take a family vacation to Florida during the summer to celebrate. While they were there, Karen began to feel sick. She contracted a virus that, because of her weakened immune system, took greater hold of her than it typically would have. She was hospitalized again immediately following the trip.

As Malakoff’s football season progressed, her condition continued to worsen. For the final month of her life, Adams said, she could hardly speak. After the Tigers defeated Dallas A-Plus Academy on Oct. 19, Adams went to the hospital to visit his sister. She had taken a turn for the worse and there wasn’t much time. He would spend the weekend at the hospital until that Sunday, when she died with Caleb and the rest of her siblings holding her hand.

Karen passed away and came back to life three times before dying. Adams said the final time she came back, she mustered enough strength to tell the family she had seen the gates of heaven.

“I’m leaving,” she told her mother. “I’m not coming back.”

With that, she let go. Adams, along with the rest of his family, was left to grieve.

“It was hard for me to understand that she wasn’t coming back,” Adams said. “I held her hand the whole way she died. Once she told us that, I was hoping for a miracle that she was going to wake up and act like she was just playing. Just be my regular sister. You can’t always have your way.”

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The next week was understandably tough on Adams.

He tried to attend practice on Tuesday, but only made it halfway through. He skipped the rest of the week but made it to the Tigers’ game against Dallas Madison, which they won, 40-18.

After that game, the city again suffered heartbreak. Michael Voyles, a longtime Tiger fan who attended all of the football games, was killed in a car wreck on his way back from the game that evening. He was 47.

“We had a lot of adversity,” coach Jamie Driskell said. “It’s been a strange, rough season. The kids have shown great mental toughness and great tenacity to survive all that.”

It has been the kindness of Driskell, other coaches, Leis and his teammates that aided Adams through a tumultuous year.

Adams’ mother lost her job because she was too busy taking care of Karen that she couldn’t make her shifts. With no income, she lost her home. It was then that Leis offered to take the single mother and her four children.

During Thanksgiving, Driskell and his wife, Emily, along with other coaches and their families, organized for dinner to be sent to Leis’ house. Two hams, two turkeys and all the side dishes were loaded in the back of Leis’ car at the middle school, where she is a teacher. Driskell also collected checks from members of the small town to completely pay for Karen’s funeral, which the entire football team attended.

“Nobody will ever have what we have because of Jamie Driskell,” Leis said. “He texts me all the time to check on Caleb. Every single day for a month food was delivered to me at school so that I made sure I didn’t have to cook that night. A different coach’s wife or community member would cook for me. I don’t know that I would have been able to take on four more children without the football community and Malakoff taking over.”

The family eventually moved in with an aunt while Adams stayed with Leis and his girlfriend, Kinsey. He, along with his stepfather, is working to rebuild a trailer for his family to live in that is near completion.

In the midst of so much tragedy, it is the compassion of others that has made everything bearable. Adams said he is thankful for each person who has offered to help his family.

“It was the whole team,” he said. “They all came to her funeral with their jerseys on. I didn’t know any of them were going to come. But I think the most comforting part was my mom and my girlfriend. Her mom and her are always there for me.”

Malakoff has worn turquoise decals on its helmets in the shape of a 'K' to honor Karen ever since her passing. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

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The Grandview game on Sept. 20 was unique in a few ways.

RJ Carr, the Tigers’ starting running back, suffered an injury that would keep him sidelined for the remainder of the regular season. Keevie Rose was thrust into a spotlight with little experience as the main back. The offense wasn’t clicking.

But to Adams, one factor is more relevant than the rest. It was one of the last games Karen attended in person.

“It’s a big deal to me that she saw us lose,” Adams said. “I wish a lot of things. I wish she was still here so she could see me succeed, but she made me a whole other person when she got cancer. She made me think about things. You don’t know what you have until you lose them. It’s hard for people to understand that until they actually lose something.”

The Tigers will wear turquoise decals in the shape of a ‘K’ over the ‘M’ on their helmets during the championship game, as they have in each game since Karen’s death.

One of Adams’ favorite memories with Karen is when the two were riding together in a four-wheeler Adams bought for his siblings. He was driving and ran over a pipeline, causing them to flip and Karen to shout “ignorant!” at Adams. It was her go-to word any time Adams did something foolish. The two laughed about it and hopped back on the vehicle.

Although the chance to make memories like that is gone, Adams said he believes Karen is in heaven, looking down on him. Because of that, he aims to honor her with what he achieves. Eventually, he is hopeful that will be an opportunity to play football in college.

For now, beating Grandview is the goal.

The past couple of months might have felt like his life was flipped upside down. But now, Adams is ready to get back on and start driving again.

“I feel like we are (more prepared than before),” Adams said. “We want our revenge. They feel like they can beat us again. It’s gonna be even more hyped up because of the fact we lost when we were going through that adversity.”