On this particular crisp fall day, when the sun peeks over the Cascades, it leaves tiny Buckley covered in a translucent glow.
Football practice at White River High School instantly livens up. Country music blares through the stadium’s loudspeakers. Players are chatty. Even coach Joe Sprouse, a former Hornets linebacker, takes a snap or two as the scout-team quarterback.
Studying a play-calling sheet, starting quarterback Sean Hayes and his father, Don — also his position coach — look up in time to watch Sprouse throw a touchdown pass and perform a crazy dance that elicits booming laughter.
Sprouse is a Buckley native. He has lived in this community most of his life. He knows its warmth. He knows its ability to embrace its own and outsiders who move in, like the Hayes family did.
And folks in this East Pierce County town not only have welcomed the Hayeses with open arms, but they’ve also taken care of them after a sudden family calamity.
“We have an incredibly friendly community,” Sprouse said. “They don’t hold anything against somebody from Lake Tapps, or if they move here from Colorado or anywhere.
“I am sure that happens in other places. That is not the case at White River.”
Long before moving his family 1,300 miles to Washington state, Don Hayes coached football in small towns throughout the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
A University of Colorado graduate, Hayes taught and coached high school football in Boulder, back in his native Steamboat Springs, then in Basalt, Salida, Durango and Delta.
In 1990, he met a woman at a Colorado Buffaloes home game who wanted to set him up with her sister. Six months later, Hayes and Elaine Gordon — a bright, effervescent medical-school student working as a ski instructor — went out on a blind date in Winter Park.
It went well. The two eventually wed, and had one son — Sean — in 1996.
The family embraced a vagabond lifestyle. The three of them often skied, took monthlong road trips in their truck and entered their canines in hunting-dog competitions.
They were happy. But in 2010, they were also ready for change. So after Elaine accepted a nurse-educator position in the intensive care unit at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Enumclaw, they moved.
“I was open to the move,” Sean said. “My dad said we’d be up near the mountains and that we could go skiing, which I had been used to. I was up for it — just another adventure.”
Because it meant Sean would be attending his fifth school in a decade, Don and Elaine made a pact to stay in Washington until their son graduated from high school — which ended up being White River.
Sprouse was in the boys locker room when Don and Sean visited White River for the first time. The coach invited the teenager to a team summer workout and the parents to the program’s first booster club meeting.
“I could see Elaine was a funny, kind and warm person,” Sprouse said. “And Don can be rough and gruff, and does not hold back on his opinions. They balanced each other out.”
Sprouse also had a staff opening at White River. Don applied and got the job. That fall, he coached his son on the ninth-grade team while his wife watched from the grandstands.
“She sat in the stands when Sean was younger with her sister while I coached,” Don said. “She’s a football fan.”
Without warning, tragedy struck.
After the Hornets took off for team camp in Seaside, Ore., in the summer of 2011, Don received a phone call as players and coaches were heading back to the dormitory rooms.
It was from Elaine. Not feeling right, she frantically begged her husband to come home.
“She said, ‘I love you,’ ” Don said.
Don and Sean jumped in the car, drove 3½ hours and arrived at the Enumclaw hospital by 11:15 p.m. By then, Elaine had suffered a massive brain injury and was unconscious. She was immediately transported to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.
Four days later, she died at age 47.
Local doctors had difficulty explaining what unfolded. What they could tell was that an “explosive event” took place in her head, and that her brain severely swelled up over the next 12 hours, Don said.
A biopsy of her brain was sent to Advanced Neurologic Associates in Ohio for further examination. Even after that, no exact cause could be determined by national specialists.
Elaine’s sudden death left Don and Sean alone. In a predictably distraught state, Don wanted to pack up and move back to Colorado to be close to other family. Then Sean spoke up.
“I told him that I just had a good feeling about this place (Buckley) and that I liked the people,” Sean said. “I knew a support system was in Colorado, but I thought it would be here, too.
“I didn’t have a problem moving again, but I said, ‘Let’s stay here and ride this out for a while.’ ”
Sean was right. Within an hour of his mother’s death, teammates began calling him, sending him text messages, all inquiring if there was anything they could do to help out.
Members of the football booster club began leaving pre-cooked meals on the front porch of the Hayes’ house. Players and coaches made sure Sean had a car ride whenever he needed one. One local grocery store, Burnett Store, donated a $100 credit for food and supplies.
“There was a mom of a football player whose neighbor made pot pies that lasted us two nights,” said Don, who teaches math at Graham-Kapowsin High School. “It was just all so well-timed. It was so well-planned. They networked it.”
Sprouse dubbed it the “outreach of Hornet Nation.”
“Obviously they were upset,” said Keenan Fagan, the Hornets’ star running back. “Even in the weeks ... that passed, they would show up and do our (workouts) reps, but they were not as upbeat as they usually were.”
Father and son had each other — and leaned on each other to get through the sorrow-filled moments. Slowly, life regained most of its normalcy, and the two of them decided not to relocate.
“We’ve tried to maintain life habits as best as we could,” Don said. “Except we hired a maid.”
Now Sean is a senior and unflappable team leader. Each week, coaches have asked players to list their biggest inspiration entering a game, including this week’s Class 2A state playoff opener against Orting.
Each time, Sean has listed the same answer — his mother. He also plans to attend a private NCAA Division III school to study medicine.
After his son graduates, Don, 52, also is up in the air about the next step. He wants to watch his son play football in college, if that opportunity happens. He also could revisit the thought of returning to Colorado.
“I don’t know if this is home — but it has the comfort of home,” Don said. “These are good people around here.”