By JUSTIN RAINS
As the shot rises in its high, familiar arc, fans rise out of their seats and players rise off the bench, arms raised in anticipation.
When it goes in: Pandemonium.
The shot comes from the hands of Cayuga senior Trayce Howard, a player with a unique story.
Howard, a senior with special needs, moved to Cayuga last March from South Texas, not knowing what to expect.
What he’s found is a second family, one that accepted him almost from the time he set foot in town. An athletics family.
“It’s real helpful,” Trayce, 19, said. “It’s a lot of people that can help you do what you need to do.”
But, back to that shot.
Trayce has been associated with the Cayuga basketball team for the past two seasons, and in games where the Wildcats — currently ranked second in the state at the Class 1A, Division I level — are up big, CHS coach Greg Jenkins likes to put him in the game.
When he gets in, he’s got one job and one job only: To shoot the ball when it’s passed to him. If he’s in, the ball is coming his way, and lots of times Trayce delivers.
“It’s exciting and we’re already winning,” Trayce said of his feelings when he gets into games. “I just hope that I make it because everyone is watching and if I miss then it’s disappointing to the people that came to watch.”
Which goes back to the reaction when one of his shots finds the bottom of the net. By the way Jenkins, the Cayuga players and the fans react, you’d think that the Wildcats just won the state tournament.
Not quite, but pretty close.
“It’s like winning the state championship, it’s very fun,” senior guard D’onte Jackson said. “It makes the fans and other team get excited and it makes him feel better about himself.”
Added Jenkins, “I’m excited for him because I know how much it means to him. These are the kind of things that he won’t forget for the rest of his life.”
For Trayce’s parents, Bud and Amber, sitting in the stands when Trayce gets into a game is something that can’t really be described. When one of his shots goes in and the gym erupts, even more so.
“I can’t tell you how cool it is to sit in the stands and see the crowd go nuts when he hits a shot,” Bud said. “Every dad wants to stand up and yell, ‘Yep, that’s my boy. That’s my boy.’ We have four children and the older ones play sports and we’ve had the chance to experience the regular mom and dad thing.
“But, never anything where the gym goes crazy. It’s humbling, it’s exciting. It’s really, really cool.”
The Howard family moved to Anderson County in pieces, not all at once.
Bud came first, transferring for work in October 2010 from their South Texas home near Pettus, a small community off of U.S. Highway 181 between San Antonio and Corpus Christi.
The kids, including Trayce, came next in March 2011 during spring break. Finally, when Amber was able to find a job, she joined them that June.
“Starting over in not just a different house and school, but a whole new geography,” Bud said. “Everything is different here.”
That was, admittedly, hard for the family, but Bud credits the people of the Cayuga-area with helping make it easier.
“Our church in Tennessee Colony feeds 50 or 75 kids every Wednesday, so they got to go to church and meet a lot of their classmates,” Bud said. “Knowing that Cayuga had a good reputation for winning, sometimes that comes with a cutthroat attitude...I was very guarded about the way things would happen.”
Back in Pettus, Trayce played sports just like he does at Cayuga. Except, it was nothing like how he does it at Cayuga.
He was relegated to the junior varsity, where he rarely — if ever — got to play.
“It’s really exciting because before I came here, I just played junior varsity and didn’t ever play, so it’s exciting,” he said, adding that his favorite part of the season is “just being with the team and being able to play.”
Not under Jenkins, who put him on varsity from the get-go.
“When I found out that Trayce was on varsity, I was almost skeptical and just wanted to make sure no one was doing anything to take advantage of my child,” Bud said. “Then I go into the stands and I’m sitting down and they start chanting ‘Swag.’
“Now, I don’t know what a ‘Swag’ is, but apparently he’d already been given a nickname that I was unaware of,” he continued. “So, that was a huge relief.”
The nickname has stuck, and it even adorns the front of Trayce’s letterman jacket, which he wears proudly.
Now — not two years later — he’s found life-long friends, including Jackson, who took Trayce under his wing when they met almost two years ago.
“With him being smaller than everybody, I just took him under my wing,” Jackson said. “He’s a nice guy, I met his parents and they were Christian-like, like my parents. So, I just took him in and have tried to be like a big brother to him and just watch over him.”
It’s not just Cayuga fans who rally behind Trayce when he gets on the court, it’s visiting fans as well.
The Fairfield Eagles Invitational has a tradition that, before every tournament game, they hold a small three-point shooting contest and a dunk contest.
Before Cayuga played Melissa to open that tournament last week, the teams did just that. The Wildcats’ dunk contest participant was star Preston Anderson, a no-brainer.
Their representative in the three-point contest? Trayce Howard.
As Trayce sunk one on only his second shot, the crowd erupted, and did so again as he hit one later in the 45-second window.
Later, during the fourth-quarter of the game against Melissa, Trayce found himself in the game. He hit one shot, and got looks at a lot more.
The girls’ basketball team from Diboll, waiting on the edge of the court for their game after the boys’ game, eagerly urged him on every time he got the ball.
It’s nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty common-place.
“It’s real exciting because they’re from a different school, not our school,” Trayce said of the support. “It’s nice that other people, other than just our fans, cheer.”
As much as the players and people at Cayuga have done for him, Trayce has done just as much for them.
Jenkins, who speaks of Trayce with a smile on his face, said that the senior also keeps things light in the locker room, even if the team is having a bad day.
“If you’re having a bad day, even if its a gripe-out session by me, he finds something funny and seems to lighten the mood for everybody,” Jenkins said. “He’s always happy. When he’s in a good mood, it kind of puts things into perspective and when you’re having a bad day all you have to do is see Trayce.
“He helps keep everybody one big happy family. If somebody is having a bad day, he really won’t allow it.”
He’s also just a regular member of the team, one that the guys pick on and the coaches coach, for better or for worse.
In that same game against Melissa, Trayce ran back on defense and fouled the Melissa ball-handler, stopping the clock and sending the Cardinals to the free throw line.
Jenkins wasn’t happy, and let Trayce know it.
He also feels the emotion of wins and losses, like last March when Cayuga lost to Tenaha on a last-second shot in the regional semifinals.
“I’ve never been that far in anything in my life,” Trayce said. “To not go farther was just...it hurt.”
But, like the rest of his teammates, Trayce has high hopes for this season, hopes and dreams that don’t end until Austin.
“We should be able to win it all,” he said. “That’s what we’re planning to do.”
To Bud and Jenkins and others, what Trayce brings is what is good about sports.
Winning is great, and winning is fun and, at a place like Cayuga, winning is expected.
But, at some point the games end and life moves on to something else. For some that won’t happen for years, for others it’ll be sooner. But, it’ll happen. Eventually, even the superstars aren’t stars anymore.
“Trayce is what sports is supposed to be about,” Bud said. “He knows that he’s part of a team and he gets that.”
Added Jenkins, “People think it’s about winning and losing but, to us, a lot of it is about a platform for these kids to make memories. There’s not question, with Trayce, both our school district and the kids on the team and Trayce himself, these are memories that are going to be there for a lifetime.”
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org