April 28, 2016
Sisters Ariah (left) and Tiffany Mack have run for Cypress Springs High School’s track and field team with the memory of their brother, Bryson Willis, as their motivation. Bryson, 6, passed away suddenly in December 2015.
By Joel Weckerly, CFISD communication
April 28, 2016—Bryson Willis was an energizing presence around Cypress Springs High School, where his older sisters—Ariah and Tiffany Mack—are standouts for the Panthers track and field team. When Bryson passed away suddenly in December, his presence never quite left.
“When I’m on the line, I talk to him all the time,” said Ariah, who runs the 400 and 4x400 events. “I say, ‘Please get me through this. I’m running for you.’”
“If I don’t perform, I’ll just cry all day,” said Tiffany, a 200 and 4x200 competitor. “I dedicate everything I do to him.”
Cypress Springs teammates surround sisters Ariah and Tiffany Mack wearing #DoItForBryson t-shirts. The #DoItForBryson hashtag has served as a rallying cry for the 2016 Panthers.
Bryson was a happy and healthy first-grade student at Duryea Elementary School who began having difficulty breathing one day late in 2015. He was rushed to the hospital but stopped breathing along the way. Doctors were unsuccessful in saving him, and after a couple weeks on life support, Bryson took his final breath on Dec. 13. He was 6 years old.
“It was really unexpected,” said Ruqayya Gibson, Cypress Springs girls’ track coach. “He had just played his last football game three weeks prior to that. He was the kind of kid who was always active, in sports and playful around the house. There was not a single track meet or basketball game he wasn’t at.”
The Mack sisters were stunned, but they would not face the tragedy alone. On the night of Bryson’s passing, several veteran leaders of the track team stayed the night at their house for support. From this evening came what would become the theme for the 2016 Panthers, when senior All-American Samiyah Samuels sent a tweet tagging Ariah, “This year we all #DoItForBryson.”
Junior Ariah Mack, right, qualified for the Region III-6A meet in the 4x400-meter relay event.
“Somewhere in that sleepover the hashtag came to be,” Gibson said. “The team rallying around them has taken on a life of its own. I know it fuels them because he would love to be here seeing us.”
The athletes began using the #DoItForBryson hashtag as a rallying cry, and even placed it prominently on the back of their 2016 team shirts. Prior to every track meet, they pay homage to Bryson with a special cheer.
“The girls have been there a lot, from the day he went to the hospital until now. That’s a big thing or me,” Ariah said. “At first I wasn’t doing well this season and I got really down. But I’ve slowly come back, and I’m just using it for motivation to get through the season and get to state.”
Freshman Tiffany Mack, right, qualified for the regional meet in the 4x200-meter relay event.
Helping the Macks during a time of loss has been one of Gibson’s biggest challenges as a coach. Ariah could barely move during her first couple weeks back with the team, but still never missed a practice. The usually giggly Tiffany was more prone to withdrawal from the rest of the team.
“I told them I was just proud of them for doing as much as they have. There’s a lot of people who can’t even get out of bed after a tragedy like that,” Gibson said. “They always say you have to meet each kid where they are. I’ve had to individualize a lot of stuff for them this year. It makes you proud of your team that everyone is supportive and rallies behind them.”
Carrying Bryson’s presence with them throughout the journey, the 2016 Panthers rallied for a superb season, culminating in their third consecutive district championship on April 14.
“His presence is undeniable. With everything that happens, it feels like we have a guardian angel watching over us, protecting us,” Gibson said. “There’s been no issues, no drama, no arguing. I don’t know many coaches with a team of females who can say that!”
The #DoItForBryson theme has made the Panthers a more cohesive team. The girls won their third consecutive District 17-6A team championship on April 14.
To top it off, Ariah qualified for the regional tournament in the 4x400-meter relay and Tiffany qualified in the 4x200 relay. They will both compete April 29-30 at Clear Creek ISD’s Challenger Columbia Stadium for the chance to go to state.
The Panthers—who placed second and third in the state in 2014 and 2015, respectively—have even bigger aspirations in 2016.
“#DoItForBryson is a big motivation for us, especially at state,” Ariah said.
Tiffany agreed. “He wanted to go to Austin with the team every single year,” she said. “We’re just going to try to win it all for him.”