Supporting Triumph Over Kids Cancer is personal for Scheffler
November 18, 2020
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Scottie Scheffler was the overall winner of last season's RSM Birdies Fore Love competition. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)
Mecklin Ragan was pleased, as always, when she looked at her phone to see a text from Scottie Scheffler. Turns out, though, the young PGA TOUR pro wasn’t just checking up on his long-time friend.
Scheffler told Ragan, who is the CEO of Triumph Over Kid Cancer, that he had just won some money unexpectedly and he wanted to give some of it to the charity she founded with her late brother, James. How would she feel if he did that, the 24-year-old Texan asked in the text.
“How would I feel about that? Scottie, that's incredible. Thank you so much,” Ragan remembers responding. “I don't know many professional golfers and I definitely don't know any as well as I do Scottie. But he is such a kind-hearted, genuine, humble young man who continues to go out of his way to help someone that's in a worse situation than he is in.
“In spite of all of the more recent fame and success that he's had, he continues to still be the same guy that he was the first time that I met him when he must've been, I don't know, 12 or 13 years old.”
Scheffler’s charitable windfall came when he won the RSM Birdies Fore Love competition and its $300,000 first prize last fall. The man who went on to win PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year honors made one more birdie than Lanto Griffin in the competition that spanned the first 11 events of the season.
In addition to the $50,000 he donated to TOKC, Scheffler also gave $50,000 to the North Texas PGA Section in support of its junior golf programs that he once participated in and $200,000 to the Davis Love III Foundation. But the money he gave to help fight pediatric cancer was personal.
“TOKC means a lot to me, both the charity I've been involved with for a long time and it's a cause that's close to my heart, especially with James's passing,” Scheffler says. “It was a great honor to be able to donate the Birdies Fore Love money back to them.”
Scheffler met James when the two were young teenagers playing the Legends Junior Tour in their native Texas and bonded over their shared love of golf. The two quickly became friends – once even teaming to beat a slew of more experienced players at a member-guest at James’ home club in Corpus Christi.
“That’s probably my favorite memory with James,” Scheffler says. “We had a good time. My dad and I stayed at his house, just hung out with him and his family, and got on with everybody real well.”
“They were, I think, the youngest people to ever win,” Ragan recalls with a chuckle. “And everyone was very upset that James had brought in this ringer to win the tournament.”James Ragan, 17, and Scottie Scheffler, 14, after their victory at the 2011 Burke Cup in Corpus Christi. (Courtesy of Mecklin Ragan)
James, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in the summer of 2006 shortly after he turned 13, came to the game late. He’d been a tennis player but gave up the game after a limb salvage operation that replaced 40 percent of his femur, his knee and 20 percent of his tibia with metal.
While his talent didn’t approach that of Scheffler, Ragan remembers her brother working his handicap into single digits quickly, even as the cancer began to metastasize to his lungs.
“We used to joke -- he's like, man, I should have picked this up at a younger age,” Ragan recalls, noting that James was never one to sit still. “What was I doing playing tennis?
Ragan says James, who was salutatorian of his high school graduating class, admired Scheffler for his talent and the hard work he put into his game.
“James was somebody who knew that he wasn't going to have a lot of time on his earth this, first, and he wanted to make the most of his moments,” she said. “And what he saw in Scotty was a humble, hardworking young man who had a gift, a true gift, and wasn't squandering that gift. Even from a young age, Scotty knew what he was going to be capable of and he had a goal and he was constantly working towards it.
“And he was a fantastic student. ... He made sure to graduate before he went on the TOUR type of thing. But I think that's really why James admired Scottie. And I think that in James, Scottie found a like-minded young man, a lover of golf and a friend, just somebody with similar ideals.”
For all intents and purposes, TOKC was born on James’ 14th birthday. The several rounds of chemotherapy James had undergone appeared to be working and the Ragan family thought he was nearly cancer-free.
“My parents were pretty hell-bent on celebrating the fact that as terrible of a year that it had been that it seemed like James had beaten cancer,” says Ragan, who is a surgical resident at a Virginia hospital with an eye toward becoming a pediatric surgeon who operates on kids with cancer.
“... And James, while he enjoyed a good party, he was never one that enjoyed having the spotlight on him. So, instead he managed to turn it into a birthday party/ fundraiser.”
In lieu of gifts, James asked for donations – either to the children’s hospital in his hometown of Corpus Christi or to an osteosarcoma research project at MD Anderson. Everyone wore togas – which became a theme of TOKC’s charitable efforts – and a phenomenal $40,000 was raised.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Ragan recalls. “We just had some very, very generous people in our community that saw a young man trying to make a difference and wanted to be a part of it.”
A couple of months later, though, the news was dire. The family learned that James’ cancer had metastasized to his lungs “and at that point, patients with osteosarcoma become terminal,” Ragan says. “They're going to die. It's a question of when.”
The need to fund research into pediatric cancer that the Ragan family had embraced with that first toga party soon became a mission. A second event was held for James’ 15th birthday and this time, it included a golf tournament after James had taken up – and taken to -- the game.
By 2010, James and Mecklin had formalized the name – Triumph Over Kid Cancer – and applied for 501 (C) (3) status. Their first major project was the Children’s Sarcoma Initiative designed to give start-up grants to young researchers. The need for new approaches was great – the chemotherapeutic agents that James was being treated with were essentially the same ones that were used in the 1970s.
In December of 2013, TOKC realized its goal of raising $1.5 million that was matched by MD Anderson. About two weeks later, James was told he didn’t have much time left. He passed away on Feb. 17, 2014.
“And then two weeks later, I was back with one of my board members at MD Anderson, taking meetings, figuring out what project we were going to support next,” Ragan says.
They chose a pediatric genome research and sequencing project at MD Anderson, raising $1.5 million in a matching agreement with the cancer hospital. Now, TOKC is funding two $1 million pledges – an immunotherapy-related project at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and a phase two drug trial for kids with osteosarcoma and lung metastasis at MD Anderson.
“One of the research projects that made this current research project possible was something that we supported through the Children’s Sarcoma Initiative, our very first project,” Mecklin says. “So, it's been very interesting. It will be almost 15 years this year since we started fundraising. It's been a decade now since the foundation's been in existence and it's taken all that time.
“But to get to see some of the projects you supported start to come full circle is pretty, pretty interesting. And definitely makes you want to keep working because kids are still getting cancer and they need as much help as they can get.”
Over the years, Scheffler has become a fixture at TOKC charity golf tournaments. When he was in school at the University of Texas, he did everything he could do attend – even though the tournament was usually in May and the NCAAs were on the horizon. He’s been the honorary starter since James died.Scottie Scheffler at the course for TOKC's James A. Ragan Triumph Scramble back in 2017. (Courtesy of Mecklin Ragan)
The coronavirus canceled this year’s Toga party but the TOKC tournament was held the day before Halloween. Scheffler couldn’t be at the event but he made sure to be available on FaceTime for a Q&A.
Ragan says that often kids with cancer have to give up sports they love to play like football and baseball. Golf and swimming, though, tend to offer new opportunities. So, to honor Scheffler’s donation, TOKC has created a program called “Scottie’s Heroes” that will provide a few age-appropriate golf clubs, a bag and other items to interested kids, many in the cities where Scheffler plays.
“We can give it away to children with cancer that that are so inclined, and Scottie can also get these traveling when he's at tournaments in different places,” Ragan says. “He can share all the love with others that he shared with TOKC. ...
“We’ll have some for him that he can take with him when he travels, and he can give them away to the children himself, as well. Because I know that that's a fun part of it as well -- getting to see a smile on a kid with cancer's face.”