As a young athlete, Tujuan Colbray was something special.
Basketball, football, baseball — those were his games.
He was quick, driven, a natural. So good that coaches would fight over him.
“You saw him do things kids his age shouldn’t have been able to do,” said Douglas Dorton of Pasco, a longtime family friend and youth sports coach. “He was probably going to be one of the best athletes to ever come out of Pasco High.”
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But Colbray was diagnosed with cancer as a preteen and spent his middle and high school years undergoing treatment instead of dominating on the field and the court.
Sometimes, he thinks about what he missed. About what could have been.
But the 25-year-old Pasco man doesn’t dwell there long.
Instead, today — and every day — he feels grateful.
He’s now cancer free, and although the disease stopped him from fulfilling his promise as a student athlete, it didn’t take away his love of sports.
They’re a central part of his life post-cancer.
And it’s a full life. One he seems to be cherishing.
“There are some people who would think, ‘(You should) be angry,’ ” Colbray told the Herald, at home in Pasco on a recent afternoon. “There are some times when I get down that I kind of think about that — when I go to high school games, (I think), ‘Man, I wish I could have been out there when I was (that age).’
“But thinking about it now, there are people who were sicker than me who didn’t get a chance. A couple boys (I knew with cancer) who didn’t make it, and I’m still here,” he said. “I’m thankful for that — just being here with my family.”
‘It was a struggle’
Colbray’s mom, Wanda Gilmore, knew something was wrong with her youngest son when his energy level dropped. He started taking naps instead of heading outside to shoot hoops.
Gilmore took him to the doctor, and eventually the diagnosis came: leukemia.
It was June 2002, the tail-end of Colbray’s sixth-grade year.
The family became regulars in the hallways of Deaconess and then Sacred Heart hospitals in Spokane. They learned about chemo, about Hickman lines. About hope and worry and fear.
“It was a struggle,” Gilmore said, though she praised her son for being strong.
The doctors and nurses loved him, she said. He never complained.
“Him being strong is why I didn’t fall apart,” his mom said.
Colbray missed out on a lot — from school dances to activities with friends.
And, of course, being on the field and the court.
His love of sports bloomed early.
“I’ve known him since he was about 3 years old, living across the street,” said family friend Martin Perez. “He’d come over, always with a basketball in his hand. He’d ask if the boys — my sons —could come out and play. He always had a smile on his face.”
After Colbray was diagnosed, the Perez family rushed to Spokane to see him.
“(Colbray) was lying there” in the hospital, and worry tinged his face.
“But he still had that smile,” Perez said. “He’s a battler.”
Colbray battled for several years, with his cancer finally declared to be in remission when he was a sophomore in high school. But the reprieve was short-lived.
About a month later, the cancer was back and more treatment followed.
There’s no doubt it was difficult, but when Colbray talks about his years-long cancer fight, he chooses to highlight the happier moments.
Like when his friends and family — Colbray’s clan includes his mom, his older brothers Jermell and Dean, and his dad Dean Colbray Sr. — got so enthusiastic about the snack cart making the rounds of the hospital that staff had to declare it to be for patients only.
Like when he came home after a round of treatment and his friends gathered to see him. He went to his baseball team’s tournament and threw out a first pitch. His team won.
There was a time, too, his senior year, when he got a glimpse of what life could have been like without cancer. He was manager of the Bulldogs basketball team, but the coach had him suit up during a non-league against Sunnyside. He put multiple points on the board.
“It was pretty nice,” Colbray said modestly.
His mom remembers the crowd cheering loudly. “I think the whole school was excited — the whole team and everybody,” she told the Herald.
Perez was there too. “The crowd was going crazy,” he recalled. “That was his dream — to play in a Pasco High uniform. He’s accomplished a lot — then, now.”
“What he has gone through — everybody has their struggles, but his favorite words are, ‘God doesn’t put anything in front of you that you can’t handle.’”
Colbray has handled a lot, Perez said, his voice catching.
“I get emotional. I don’t know, he’s just — (my family) is grateful to have him around. We are. If we didn’t, there would be a void.”
Leaving an imprint
Colbray’s last treatment was the week he graduated from Pasco High in June 2008.
He goes to the doctor for checkups, but he’s moved from being a patient to a survivor.
And he has plenty to keep him busy. Colbray holds down two jobs and plays in some local sports leagues. A few years back, he started helping Dorton with a youth basketball team — and he found a natural fit in coaching.
He can teach skills, but also inspire. Perseverance is the story of his life.
Dorton recalls when Colbray shared about his cancer battle with the team.
“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the building that day.
“You meet Tujuan, you instantly love Tujuan. The minute he shares his story and tells you he’s a survivor, your love for him goes deeper because you realize this isn’t just a survivor,” Dorton told the Herald. “This is someone who’s taken life and said, ‘For however many days I have left, I’m going to leave my imprint.’”
Colbray has been featured in the Herald a few times during the years, including in a story on Thanksgiving 2007 that focused on his friendship with three other Tri-City boys with cancer. He said he wanted to share an update on his life to inspire others facing their own struggles.
“If you’re positive, positive things can happen,” he said. “Just because something is taken away, as sports were taken away from me, there are other ways in life to get joy out of it.”
Colbray plans to keep working, coaching, trying to make a mark.
A few years ago, he got clearance from his doctor to get a tattoo on his arm. It’s a cancer ribbon, and the design also includes nods to Michael Jordan and the New Orleans Saints, and the words, “Cancer Survivor.”
It’s a reminder of how far he’s come and the possibilities ahead.
“I just thought it would be something that, if I ever were to get down, I could look over and say, ‘I beat cancer,’” Colbray said,“‘I can pretty much do anything I put my mind to.’”