The Circle Wildcats lost to the Culbertson Cowboys in their Class C basketball game Saturday night, but what happened just before the game is what people in both towns are likely to remember for a long time to come.
Eight football players from Circle went through the crowd of about 150 people, collecting donations in football helmets. They raised more than $2,000 for the family of Shay Bridges, a Culbertson basketball player who recently learned he has a pituitary brain tumor.
Shay’s mother, Melinda Portra, said the experience was overwhelming.
“I cried,” she said. “I mean, I just don’t even know. There’s no words to describe all the emotions a person feels when people do something so loving.”
Beth Conroy, of Circle, whose sons came up with the idea of doing the fundraiser, said the two towns, though 100 miles apart, are very close.
“It’s Eastern Montana and it’s a small town, but when somebody’s in need, we really step up,” she said.
Shay is a 16-year-old junior at Culbertson High. He’d been having trouble with his hormone levels, so his parents, Melinda and Kevin Portra, took him to a local doctor for a checkup last month. An MRI discovered the tumor, which was already twice as large as such tumors usually are when they’re found.
He was immediately sent to a specialist in Denver, whom he saw on Jan. 26. The doctor put him on a regimen of medications intended to shrink the tumor and to adjust his thyroid levels. He may have to undergo surgery if that doesn’t work.
This all happened so recently that Portra said she doesn’t know what all the costs will be. But their insurance isn’t covering everything, she said, and “just going to Denver alone is nice and spendy.”
Mary Machart, who has Shay in her Jobs for Montana Graduates class at Culbertson High School, said other students in the class started a fundraiser last week, selling “Pray 4 Shay” (his jersey number is 4) wristbands. They raised $160 in the first hour of sales and are now up to $500 or $600. Machart said she still has to add it all up.
And then she heard from Conroy, who told her the Circle football players wanted to do a fundraiser at the Saturday night basketball game. Conroy said the whole thing started with her daughter, McKinna.
“She was just flipping through Facebook one night and she said, ‘What’s up with Shay Bridges?’” He had put up a post about his problems with the tumor. That was more than 10 days ago, and Conroy’s sons, Colton and Calder, kept talking about trying to do something to help him.
Friday, the day before the basketball game, they came up with the pass-the-helmet idea, modeled after firefighters passing a boot. They rounded up six other football players and went into the stands between the girls’ and boys’ varsity games Saturday.
In just a few minutes, they raised almost $1,900. Later in the game, Conroy’s husband, Michael “Voice of the Wildcats” Conroy, announced how much had been raised. At that point, the head referee donated the money he was being paid that night, and another ref donated his check, too. The total came to $2,053.67, which was presented to Shay’s parents.
Shay, who is just 5-foot-3 and plays on the JV and varsity teams for Culbertson, went into the game after the Cowboys were well ahead.
“When they put him in at the end of the game, he came in and scored right off the bat,” Beth Conroy said. “The crowd literally went crazy.” He ended up with four points in the 61-41 win over Circle.
Portra said her son’s short stature is probably related to his thyroid problems, though they didn’t know that before. His doctors are talking about putting him on growth hormones.
She described her son as a class clown, a bundle of energy who is friends with everybody.
“Shay is just one of those kids that is just liked by everybody,” she said. “In all the surrounding towns, everyone knows Shay.”
That kind of camaraderie is not unusual in the small towns of Eastern Montana. Conroy and Machart both mentioned an incident a few years back, when two teenagers from Circle were killed in an accident while driving to Culbertson.
The people of Culbertson “really rallied” to support the people of Circle, Conroy said, so this idea of helping Shay was an opportunity to return the favor.
“Our community really came to support them,” Machart said of the highway deaths. “You know, in Class C, everybody’s family.”
Details: To make a donation to help Shay, click right here.