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La Cueva athletes bond through illness, earn prestigious honor

La Cueva High School student-athletes Tyler Jenson, left, and Max McGaha became friends while battling cancer at University of New Mexico Hospital. (Courtesy of Michelle Jenson)

They met in a quintessentially 21st century way:

Electronically.

“We played video games before I met him in person,” 16-year-old Max McGaha said. “We already had a friendship. Kind of.”

On one side of a hallway inside a room at University of New Mexico Hospital was McGaha. Straight across the hall, in his own bed, was Tyler Jenson. Connecting them, playfully, and for the moment, was the popular Fortnite.

They had, of course, seen each other walking those UNMH halls before they actually shook hands for the first time. And, they were, they quickly discovered, brothers under the skin.

Cancer patients.

“Maybe,” McGaha wondered at the time, “we were going through the same thing. Maybe we can be friends.”

“It was pretty cool to meet another kid (like me) who was going through a similar thing,” Jenson said.

Jenson in the fall of 2018 had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, derailing his sophomore football season at La Cueva High School. About that same time, McGaha, then a freshman at Piedra Vista High in Farmington, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

They met, they shared a journey, they forged a friendship.

And today, both are in remission.

“Looking back on it,” said McGaha, who became a La Cueva classmate of Jenson after moving to Albuquerque to have easier access to medical treatments, “it just feels like a time in my life that was a long, bad dream.”

Jenson and McGaha are also connected in this other, significant way:

They have been selected as Section 6 recipients of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” by the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS.

In late June in Chicago, the NFHS is scheduled to vote on a national winner. The Section 6 recognition is rare; according to the New Mexico Activities Association, only one other New Mexico student – the late Austin Denton, who also attended La Cueva and who died just last December – has been similarly recognized by the NFHS in terms of its Spirit of Sport honor.

Section 6 encompasses New Mexico, Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. There are eight national sections; nominees for this award come from various state associations – in Jenson and McGaha’s case, the NMAA.

Jenson, currently a junior, plays football and competes in track and field at La Cueva. He made his comeback from cancer last spring, throwing the javelin. McGaha, a sophomore, plays baseball for the Bears, largely for the JV but he had logged a couple of varsity innings on the mound this season before it was cancelled due to COVID-19.

Oddly enough, Jenson said, as he was admitted to UNM to begin treatments for his cancer a year and a half ago, he wasn’t in the mood to socialize.

“At first, I didn’t really want to meet anyone,” he said. “I didn’t like leaving the room. I was hesitant to meet (Max), but once I did, I was pretty relieved. We were able to hang out over PlayStation.”

Of the NFHS recognition at the Sectional level, both were humbled and appreciative.

“It’s an honor,” Jenson said. “I’m really thankful that Max and I are able to represent that award, and us being friends, too.”

McGaha endured nearly nine months of chemotherapy treatments at UNM, with almost no time spent at his Farmington home. His father, Mike, was a bone marrow transplant donor for his son. Like Jenson, McGaha didn’t know much about this particular award until it had been bestowed upon them.

“It’s just kind of crazy to me,” McGaha said. He moved to Albuquerque last October, and although the coronavirus robbed him of most of his sophomore season, he still has two years to compete for La Cueva. “I feel proud of myself, and I feel really good about it.”

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