It had been nearly a year since his mom’s seizures. These early signs that the brain cancer she seemingly beat a decade before was about to return turned Rudy Hughes’ world upside down.
Now, as he entered his senior year at West Linn High School, he was in need of a big break – a turning point – to give him a reason to be excited about the future.
The previous year had worn him down. With his mom Shawn incapacitated and his father Corey working long hours as a stockbroker, Rudy was left to be “Mom 2.0,” as his mother put it. That meant making sure his two younger brothers had lunches and were getting to school. It meant doing the grocery shopping, preparing dinners and taking his mom to medical appointments. And it required that he juggle the long hours of study and practice of a student-athlete with the demands of taking care of the family.
“Let’s just say, junior year was a rough time, not only for me personally but because I had to watch my mom go through what she went through,” he says. “She had a seizure and crashed the car, so she couldn’t drive, and many days she wasn’t able to get out of bed. My dad had East Coast work hours, leaving the house at 4 a.m., so he was gone, which left me to do the driving, shopping – pretty much everything. It was a struggle. I wasn’t doing too well in school. I needed something to happen to give me a lift.”
Hope came in the most unlikely of forms. For, as Hughes recalls, he wasn’t even on recruiters’ radars when a group of coaches from George Fox paid a visit to a football camp the summer before his senior year. They were there to scout another player when fate stepped in: A coach on the West Linn staff suggested they also consider scouting Hughes, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound strong safety with something to prove.
“They approached me and said they would be watching me,” Hughes says. “It was my lifelong dream to play college football, and George Fox was the first school to show interest in me. It was an uplifting moment because a lot of stuff hadn’t been going right. Finally that good thing came along and gave me a lot of hope entering my senior year. It motivated me. Up to that point I lacked motivation, thinking nothing was going to go right for me. That was a big moment in my life.”
Inspired by the prospect of playing college ball, Hughes emerged as one of the best defenders in the Class 6A Three Rivers League, earning first-team all-league honors in helping his team reach the quarterfinals of the playoffs, its best season in more than 20 years.
The year also provided a moment of levity for the kid who shares the same first name as the title character from the football-themed movie Rudy. “Every time I meet someone new, they’ll ask, ‘You know there’s a football movie with your name in it?’” he laughs. “I’ll say, ‘Yeah, saw it when I was a kid.’ Well, I’d never heard that ‘Rudy’ chant until my senior year when I made a tackle in the backfield against Lake Oswego. The whole crowd started chanting it. It was pretty cool. I’m not gonna lie.”
“Having her still here – she wasn’t supposed to see me graduate, play college sports, or anything – makes me more appreciative of what we have and not take anything for granted.”
After the season, Hughes was picked to play in the Les Schwab Bowl, an annual all-star game featuring the state’s best players. And, upon committing to George Fox, he became the only senior from his West Linn squad to make the leap from high school to college football. Hughes has since made a smooth transition to the college ranks. One of only a handful of freshmen starters, he ranks among the team leaders in tackles and interceptions, and has played a big part in the Bruins’ resurgent season.
“This is a perfect situation for me,” he says of George Fox, where he plans to prepare for a career in sports marketing. “I liked how this school brought me in and made me feel known. They want you to branch out and be yourself here. I really fell in love with that. I feel like I won’t get lost here like I might have at a bigger school.”
He has also emerged as a team leader with maturity beyond his years.
“The thing I appreciate most about the Hughes family is their positive outlook on this whole situation,” George Fox coach Chris Casey says. “They keep mom’s cancer documents in a flowery, colorful pink box. Rather than seeing cancer as this enemy they have instead chosen to put a positive spin on what they’re going through.
“It’s a testament to the attitude Rudy and his whole family have taken to handle all this. They’re not bitter or negative. There’s no self-pity.”
Hughes confesses a deep appreciation for “the little things in life” and has a caring nature that belies his youth. Even his roommate at George Fox, also a freshman, sees him as an older brother. It’s a nurturing character trait rooted in Hughes’ childhood, when, as a 6-year-old, he was told his mom may not live more than four or five months. A brain tumor the size of an orange threatened to take her from his life, and he wanted to spend every spare moment with her, even if it meant standing by her side as she vomited from the chemotherapy – or assisting her in scrubbing the chemo smell from her skin.
Life-saving surgery and chemotherapy treatments rid Shawn’s body of the tumor. For 10 years, she had a clean bill of health. Then came the news in December of 2014 that the cancer had returned, rekindling painful memories and sending the family scrambling to keep up with mounting medical bills and hectic schedules. Shawn’s home chemo treatments fended off this tumor as well, and today she is able to watch her son play the sport he loves.
“Having her still here – she wasn’t supposed to see me graduate, play college sports, or anything – makes me more appreciative of what we have and not take anything for granted,” Hughes says. “I’m probably a little more caring than a lot of people I know. Our situation made me grow up a little faster than most people, I believe. It molded me into who I am today.”