By Ken Rodriguez, SARampage.com/Spurs.com
The anniversary came upon Nolan Yonkman suddenly, a rush of warmth and sadness mingled with memories that sparkle: bowling, go-karts, video games. Her name was Yadira -- Yadira Medrano -- and she was 8-years-old when they met, 9 when she departed and he misses her a lot.
Yonkman last saw her here at the Ice Center at Northwoods, where they took in a preseason Rampage game together. Yonkman, a defenseman, did not play. Instead, he sat in the stands with the little girl and her parents and marveled at her strength.
Yardira had lost her left leg, just above the knee, to osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor.
The malignancy had spread through her body. Now there she was, after chemotherapy and radiation, after special treatments in Houston, lifting Yonkman with a luminous smile from her wheelchair.
It was Saturday Oct. 1, 2011. Three days later, she was gone. On Saturday Oct. 6, Yonkman was back at the rink, reflecting, a 3-0 preseason loss to the Texas Stars eclipsed by the memory of a remarkable girl. “She impacted my life,” Yonkman was saying, and the words did not come easily.
They met in 2010 through Face-Off Against Kids Cancer, a Rampage program that matches players with children from the Centers for Oncology and Blood Disorders at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital.
Yonkman impressed with his physique (6-foot-6, 251 pounds) and good looks. “Yadira fell in love with him,” says her father, Juan Medrano, a meat cutter for H-E-B. Yadira impressed with her spunk and spirit. “The first thing I noticed,” Yonkman says, “was the spark in her eye.”
They became fast friends, laughing, sharing pizza, enjoying arcades. The Medranos took Yadira to Rampage games. Yonkman visited with her parents and brothers afterwards. He and Yadira exchanged phone calls and text messages. Yonkman and the Medranos took in a rodeo. They dined together. He became part of the family.
“I was amazed at how happy she was,” Yonkman says. “She made me realize how much I have and how I should never take things for granted.”
She was a cheerleader, 7-years-old, all pep and energy. One day her left knee grew sore and swollen. The initial diagnosis: a sprain from cheerleading. The swelling continued. The pain intensified. An X-ray showed a large piece of bone missing. That’s when they knew.
Juan and Yadira -- mother and daughter share the same name -- did what they could. Their daughter battled, and Spurs Sports & Entertainment helped, with a contribution toward Yadira's medical expenses.
The Medranos remain grateful. SS&E provided financial assistance, Yonkman provided an emotional lift. Thirteen months after their little girl met him, they held a funeral. Yonkman looked in the casket. His eyes grew wide. There, beside the body, were photographs, pictures of him and Yadira. There was a bobblehead doll of Yonkman. A hockey stick. A puck he had given her.
“That was pretty emotional,” he says.
Yonkman did not know the Medranos wanted Yadira to take a part of him with her. He uses words like “honored” and “impacted” to describe what he felt but they are inadequate. All he knows is that he could not let go of the family. So he continues to call and visit, and the Medranos don’t want him to stop. They had him over last Christmas. They attend his games.
“We became season ticket-holders,” Juan says, “because of Yadira and Nolan. She had so much fun with him. We have tons of pictures of them. He’s a really neat guy.”
At 31, Yonkman is the Rampage’s oldest player. He served as captain last season and no one will be surprised if he fills the same role this season. He mentors the younger guys, provides a veteran’s perspective, leads by example, and not just about hockey.
Yonkman connects with people in pain. He can make a dying girl laugh. He can put a smile on hurting parents. He can use his gift to lift a family as a little girl once lifted him. The Medranos, Yonkman will tell you, are special people.
“They are friends,” he says, “for life.”