James Riley will never forget that spring day in 2002.
It was his freshman year at Wake Forest and he was doing homework in a common area when his roommate, Ryan Caugherty, walked up to him with his cell phone. Riley didn’t have a cell phone until his junior year, so anytime anyone needed to reach him, they would call his roommate knowing that Riley wouldn’t be far away.
He could sense in his mother’s voice that they were about to have a serious conversation so he went to his dorm room and closed the door. Within moments, the tears started to flow.
“James, I have breast cancer.”
Eight years later, those words have led Riley to work with the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure since he joined the Sounders FC in 2009. Prior to that, he worked with the Breast Cancer Foundation in Boston while playing with the New England Revolution.
Now Riley is doing everything he can in hopes that someday kids won’t have to worry about receiving that same phone call from their mother – or at the very least that they have a sufficient support system if they do get that call.
For those efforts, he was named MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Month for October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The news in 2002 shook him to the core. He knew that his mom didn’t have any family around to help outside of his younger sister, so he had to get on the next plane home to Colorado Springs. His mom knew that would be his reaction and wouldn’t allow it. Come home during Spring Break, she told him.
With the help of Caugherty and Wake Forest head coach Jay Vidovich, he found the strength to resist leaving school to be by his mother’s side.
“It was an unbelievable feeling to hear my mom say that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. There were a lot of tears – I don’t think I’ve ever cried that hard before in my life,” Riley said.
Doctors were optimistic that his mother, Chong Horton, caught it early enough that she would survive.
While it was difficult for Riley to take – he describes seeing her that spring with no hair as a “knife in the heart” – he knew that her determination would get her through it. Harder to take was the fact that he knew that she would continue working as a housekeeper at Broadmoor Hotel and Resort in Colorado Springs through the treatments.
“For me, that was the worst feeling,” Riley said.
He even considered transferring to Colorado College so he could stay home and help. However, under the assurances from some close family friends that they would help her along every step of the way, he stayed at Wake Forest and finished his degree before embarking on his MLS career.
Now, Horton is fully recovered and “as vibrant as ever.” And Riley is doing his part in promoting breast cancer awareness.
“The stuff I do is very minute,” he said. “In the position I’m in, I just try to make people aware. It affects a lot of people, so anything I can do to help with Susan G. Komen is easy for me.”
He has helped promote the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in the Seattle area, encouraging the community to participate and fundraise for the event. He even showed up amidst a downpour to help at the race in June.
This year, he tried to have a pink ribbon sewn on his jersey for the whole season, but agreed instead to only wear it during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“It’s vital. James has a unique personality and he brings awareness to people through his notoriety,” said Cherie Skager, the Director of Outreach and Communications for the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “He’s not a survivor himself, but he speaks to the family members. This is really a family disease – it takes a family to survive breast cancer.”
In Riley’s communications with people, he encourages people to get screened, but also talks to kids about making sure their parents get screened.
His mother got screened, got treatment and has since been cancer free.
On Saturday, she will be at Qwest Field for just the second time since Riley joined the Sounders. Once was for the club’s inaugural game in 2009. This time it will be part of a league-wide effort through MLS W.O.R.K.S. to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research.
“It’s a blessing to have her out here to see the game,” Riley said. “To have her here and healthy and as vibrant as ever is a real blessing.”
In addition to his work with Susan G. Komen, Riley has also been highly active with the Renton-Skyway Boys & Girls Club, Gilda’s Club, Ronald McDonald House, Children’s Hospital, America SCORES and Washington Special Olympics, among other organizations. In 2010, he has made over 30 appearances representing the club and countless others on his own.
He is in his seventh season in MLS, playing for New England and the San Jose Earthquakes before coming to the Sounders FC in the 2008 MLS Expansion Draft.
Seattle isn’t alone in their celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Throughout the month of October, all 16 MLS teams will take part in activation to raise funds and awareness for the cause. In addition, special edition MLS memorabilia will be available for auction, while other special adidas products will be available for purchase at select stadiums and retailers, with portions of the proceeds benefiting Susan G. Komen for a Cure.
Fans will be greeted at the gates by volunteers from the local chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) who will distribute 10,000 pink ribbons. Fans will also be able to donate $10 to Komen for the Cure throughout the match by texting "PINK" to "27722."
Limited edition Breast Cancer Awareness scarves and pins will be available for purchase at the Pro Shop or online. The team will donate 10% of the sales of all pink merchandise in October to The Pink Daisy Project.
Game-worn autographed jerseys and the special-edition pink match balls will be available for auction at www.MLSsoccer.com/works beginning October 15 as part of League efforts to raise funds for breast cancer research and treatment. A portion of the proceeds from these sales and proceeds from the online auction will benefit Susan G. Komen for a Cure.