When Rob Mahler stepped down as Hudson High football coach in the spring, he cited the opportunity to spend more time with his family, namely wife Jordan, newborn son Camden and 1-year-old son Clayton. Now the family is rallying around Clayton, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 pediatric cancer five weeks ago.
And the North Suncoast football community has stepped in to help the Mahlers.
Springstead athletic director Dustin Kupcik, whose sister Kasey went through her own bout of cancer four years ago, is well aware of the toll that the disease can take on families.
"I'm a dad, and he's a dad. I'm a coach, and he's a coach. It was eating at me," said Kupcik, a former Springstead offensive coordinator. "I got emotional when I called him. He made me feel better when it probably should have been the other way around. He was so confident in his son and his family."
Kupcik proposed a 12-team preseason classic at Springstead, now dubbed the "Clash 4 Clayton." All proceeds will go to the Mahlers as they begin what is expected to be a nine- to 12-month treatment process at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Chick-fil-A in Brooksville will provide breakfast for contest officials, while Gator's Dockside in Spring Hill will provide lunch. I9 Sports of Hernando County will have a hydration tent on the grounds. Sir Speedy has done all printing of fliers for free.
Saturday morning, the teams will begin competition, splitting up between the main field at Booster Stadium and the practice field closer to the gymnasium. The first two scrimmages will kick off at 9:30 a.m. with each matchup lasting for one 12-minute period. The teams will rotate, with the day's events scheduled to wrap up at 2 p.m.
Florida High School Athletic Association officials will take advantage of the day, as well. Referees will be on hand, using the scrimmages as training clinics to tighten up their calls for the upcoming season.
The entry fee is only $2. Donations also will be accepted on behalf of the Mahler family. Among the people taking tickets at the gate will be Kasey Kupcik.
"For a school to put together something like this for us is really humbling," Mahler said. "I've only coached against them, but this shows you how real the coaching fraternity is."
In addition to the "Clash 4 Clayton," Wesley Chapel Nissan is holding a poker night fundraiser from 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 25 to benefit Clayton.
While Clayton is not old enough to fully understand his illness, his parents are in awe of his strength. Because Jordan Mahler is a nurse, Clayton has been around medical environments for most of his life, so the hospital does not scare him.
"I truly believe that Clayton was built to take this on," Mahler said. "He has been in the 90th percentile in his physical development for most of his life. There are weeks like this week and next week when he acts like nothing is wrong and he's just a normal boy his age. But then there are weeks like last week when an intense treatment can take its toll."
Doctors have given Clayton a good prognosis going forward.
"They have a saying at (All Children's): We don't know how strong we are until being strong is the only option," Mahler said. "That speaks volumes about what these kids have to go through. The more support that these families have, the more successful they can be."
And support for the Mahlers will be evident on Saturday.