The locker room was raucous with a frenzied mix of cheers, brisk hugs and chants after the Washington State Cougars locked up a 52–31 homecoming victory over Oregon State. In the midst of the chaos, with his hair was still wet from his 407-yard, six-touchdown game, quarterback Luke Falk stopped to talk to a seven-year-old boy who stood quietly away from the madness.
The 6' 4" Falk knelt beside the boy so he no longer dwarfed the boy, who smiled from ear to ear under a mop of dark brown hair.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback did not know it at the time, but the boy, Grayson Goodman, had left his dad in the President's Suite because his father, Hunter, could not navigate the post-game crowds with his walker. Hunter Goodman was diagnosed with cancer when Grayson was just three years old. Falk wasn't aware of the diagnosis until he talked to Grayson.
"I had no clue. I just got told right then," Falk said. "That's a tough deal."
Goodman has undergone four surgeries and 26 radiation treatments to fight the cancer and is still receiving chemotherapy. Whether it's the blissful oblivion of youth or a resilient mirror of his father's zestful attitude, Grayson hasn't wavered while his father battles his illness.
As the Secretary of the Senate, Goodman is invited to visit both the University of Washington and Washington State University during a football weekend each year. Over time, Goodman has befriended WSU head coach Mike Leach and senior associate athletic director Dave Emerick. They frequently talk politics and football over dinner when Leach or Emerick visit the Seattle area.
Grayson was supposed to go with his dad last year for the USC game, but Goodman fell ill just days before they were supposed to fly to Pullman.
"It was a big letdown for Grayson, I think, that I had to go to the hospital to go through some more treatments and that kind of stuff," Goodman said.
When the time came this year for the family's visit to WSU, Emerick made sure the experience was enough to make up for missing the prior year. He provided Grayson and Goodman with passes for the sideline and the locker room.
By far the shortest person on the sideline, Grayson visited with the Cougars' mascot, Butch, and the team's cheerleaders. But he made it clear that his favorite part of the night came after the game was over.Courtesy of Hunter Goodman
There were other players that took pictures with him in the locker room. Jeremiah Allison and Gabe Marks also introduced themselves, but it was Falk that stood out in Grayson's mind.
"They were nice," Grayson said. "But not as nice as Luke Falk!"
Grayson stood firm in that. There were two things that Grayson was elated about: Butch's motorcycle and Falk. The excitement in his voice was palpable.
"Luke had his jersey with him, so I got to hold his jersey," Grayson said. "He said he would pray for me and play for me."
He had no trouble recognizing the significance of the undivided attention Falk gave him in the middle of a team celebration. Falk's exact words resonated with him long after their meeting.
Falk did not forget either. As promised, he demolished the Arizona defense the next game, earning Pac-12 Player of the Week honors.
Grayson could not contain his excitement when he described about Falk, his voice rose again and his smile could be heard through the phone.
"It was the best day ever!" Grayson said.
While it may have only been a five-minute conversation and a couple of pictures, for Grayson it was a chance to enjoy a day with his family and meet a player he idolized.
In his seven years of life, Grayson had never been more excited, Goodman said.
"Grayson has been watching every move Luke makes since he met him and it's really been something for our family to unite around and be excited about and it was an extraordinary opportunity," Goodman said.
Even weeks later, the excitement has not worn off. Grayson sleeps with the signed football Falk and Leach sent him. The mere mention of Falk's name sends him into a flurry of adjectives expressing his adoration of Falk.
"I thought he was really nice and he was really fun and he was really generous," he giggled and paused, then said firmly, "Daddy, he is my hero."
The admiration was not one-sided. When Falk found out Grayson had referred to him as his hero, he grinned and said, "That is flattering from a kid like that."
Kelsey Jones is SI's campus correspondent for Washington State University. Follow her on Twitter.