BRECKENRIDGE, Minn.-Carson Yaggie left the final conversation with his friend and teammate, Carter Casey, smiling. That wasn't the plan. Yaggie had visited Casey hoping to put a smile on Casey's face, seeing as the 17-year-old from Breckenridge, Minn., was struggling with a rare and aggressive form of muscle cancer.
That's not how things worked with Casey.
"I don't know how, but through all this, he always seemed to make sure he put a smile on everybody's face," Yaggie said. "He stood as more than just a kid with cancer in the (Breckenridge-Wahpeton) area. He was an inspiration. When he was going through this process he was the one comforting us, not us comforting him."
There is no joy in Breckenridge and Wahpeton, N.D., today, as their mighty Casey has died. Casey, who just turned 17 on July 5, died overnight, after a 20-month fight with spindle cell rhabdomyosarcoma.
"The entire community is just dead," Yaggie said. "Our hearts are completely dropped. It's like there's just a space in the community that will always be empty."
Throughout Casey's battle, friends, family and sports kept him smiling.
Cancer took away any real chance for Casey to fully participate in Breckenridge athletics, but his effect on the teams could not be measured by any statistic. Helmets were adorned with No. 7 stickers for him and people around the area wore shirts with his name that said "Play, Fight, Defeat." In March, the Breckenridge boys basketball team upset Perham in the section championship and the team surrounded Casey on the court and jumped on him.
The first thing Yaggie did after the buzzer sounded in the basketball game against Perham was run off the court to the stands to hug Casey. He told him the win was for him.
"Everybody loved the kid, and that's why it's so sad," Yaggie said. "The worst things happen to the best people and that's true here. He was always a joy to be around."
There was no denying Casey's first love when it came to sports was hockey. Casey's request for the Make-A-Wish Foundation was to meet the Minnesota Wild. During that meeting in March, the Wild signed Casey to a one-day contract.
The first Breckenridge-Wahpeton hockey game Casey attended, after being given the job of bench coach, was after he had just gone through chemotherapy and radiation. It was a game against MayPort and the Blades struggled the first two periods. Casey had to leave the bench in the middle of the second period because he felt light-headed. During the second intermission, coach Ryan Breuer didn't have to say much.
"We were awful in the first two periods," Breuer said. "The guys knew how they were playing and they had Carter in the locker room, a guy who was not feeling well at all, fighting just to tough the game out and be there with his teammates. Needless to say the team came out strong in the third, won the game, but I think the most meaningful part for the team was that Carter finished the game with us."
Before one of Casey's toughest surgeries, Breckenridge football coach and athletic director Chad Fredericksen talked to him. Casey explained the whole two-stage process he was about to go through to Fredericksen. Fredericksen responded by telling Casey how sorry he was.
"This is just the next stage in fighting this thing, coach," Casey said to him. "I'm good with it, and I'll be good when I get back."
That's how things worked for Casey.
"I didn't realize until later that he was comforting me, rather than the other way around," Fredericksen said. "That is who Carter is, and that is how he has fought this thing and been an inspiration throughout. What a wonderful opportunity I have had to learn from him about life."