Softball: A sweet spirit moved them

The Gaither softball team makes a "dream come true" for a terminally ill 14-year-old.

By JOE SMITH, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008

TAMPA - To Gaither senior pitcher Morgan Grove, Iisha Paxton has become "a teammate for life."

Paxton, a 14-year-old Sulphur Springs girl, may never swing a bat. But the strength, spirit and smiles she has shown through a terminal illness have given the Cowboys a lesson that transcends state titles.

Eight years ago, Paxton was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given six months to live. The bubbly teen has survived, but suffered through seizures, a bone marrow transplant, meningitis and several trips to the ER. Paxton wears hearing aids, can barely speak and is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's.

But that won't stop Paxton from putting on a Cowboys T-shirt Friday and throwing out the first pitch before Gaither hosts Land O'Lakes at 7 p.m. in a preseason softball classic; she'll likely give her trademark bearhug to each of the Cowboys' six seniors, who will forever be tied to the teen after they made Paxton's "dream come true" in November.

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Gaither coach Al Alcala first caught a glimpse of Paxton's brown eyes through chance. Alcala, an investigator for the Tampa Fire Department, was going door-to-door for a city program that offered free smoke detector checks and installations. Paxton's home was his last stop.

When Carletta Paxton opened the door, Iisha soon peeked through and began chatting with Alcala.

"He fell in love," Carletta said. "He's been in our life ever since."

Alcala, a father of two, was heartbroken by Paxton's story; the Make-A-Wish Foundation had granted her a trip to Disney World that fall, but when Iisha arrived, she became very sick and had to go home.

So Alcala & Co. stepped in. With the help of his coworkers and the Cowboys seniors, they raised nearly $2,000 to fund a three-day trip to Disney for Iisha and her parents. Grove, along with Katie Forbes, Lauren Elgar, Courtney Williams and sisters Justine and Ashley McCoy, shopped for some of Iisha's favorite things, including anything related to her favorite Nickelodeon character, Dora the Explorer. In November, they brought balloons, cards and Disney tickets to her doorstep.

"She couldn't stop smiling," Grove said. "She wanted to go to Disney right then."

Carletta and her husband, Terrence, took Iisha for a wonderful weekend trip; she hugged Mickey and Minnie, she watched all the shows - and was even brought onstage during The Lion King. Iisha may not remember everything, but Carletta captured every moment with a video camera the Cowboys bought for the family.

"It put everything in perspective for a lot of us girls," Grove said. "We have to cherish every day to the fullest; we don't know when it'll be our last."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com or(813) 310-9024.