Football places Vanderbilt's Oren Burks in position to tackle society's pressing questions
The forecast on that spring day called for rain.
Even just the promise of showers pointed back to the previous year, to the cold and soggy days when injuries kept pulling Caitlyn Wong off the soccer field, exacerbating the pressures of school and life and clouding her sense of identity. Each wince of pain or day spent in rehab contributed to the frustration of not feeling like herself, sending her searching, frustratingly, for direction.
But the days felt so different now. The weather defied the forecast on this bright and warm afternoon in April 2017. Wong soaked in the sunlight as kids ran around Oregon’s Papé Field, playing games as food trucks fired up mac and cheese and tri-tip steak sandwiches. Throughout the day, the crowd watched teams from Oregon, Oregon State and Portland compete in a seven-on-seven soccer tournament.
Wong came to Oregon for moments like this — to get a sense of how it feels to build something. She had thought she would be building her soccer skills and a team. But injuries tore her down, filling her with an emptiness and sending her on a difficult journey to find a new purpose.
Hundreds cheered players in seven-on-seven soccer games at Baldfest, organized by Caitlyn Wong (in yellow), her teammates, classmates and others. Photo by Lorena Martins / LM Photography
The conversations about starting college often sound familiar. It’s always a linear path: Pick a school that best fits, a major that is stimulating, work on it for four or five years and, after graduation, start a career.
But life inevitably throws its curveballs. Outlets that once helped define a sense of success can be taken away. Areas of interest suddenly can nurture questions and frustration. Afterward, they become the stories of personal growth that led to new directions. But in those moments, the linear path can feel like a twisting maze.
Wong stepped into that frustrating maze shortly after she’d arrived at Oregon. From the beginning, her journey through college never followed the path she had pictured.
She always had set lofty expectations for herself. In high school, her academic accomplishments were strong enough to make Ivy League schools an option, while her talent on the soccer field drew multiple Division I scholarship offers.
What Wong says she was looking for, though, was something bigger — a desire to make a difference in the world while challenging herself to excel at both school and sports. Wong’s desire followed the example set by her grandmother, who immigrated from China in the 1950s, earned her statistics degree from California and rose to become CEO of a nonprofit organization that provided medical services to the underserved Asian community.
Wong tore the ACL in her right knee the same day she planned to sign her letter of intent to Oregon, then signed it while recovering on the training table. She healed in time to make the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, but a bulging disk in her back and a torn ACL in her left knee sidelined her again.
The constant injuries and rehab took their toll. Injuries are often a mental strain as athletes struggle with self-doubt when they’re forced away from the field while working through pain and weakness with few rewards. By the time Wong returned from her second knee surgery, she’d been dealing with some form of injury for more than two years. The hardship compounded the stress of school and being 500 miles from home.
Pressure built. Wong demanded excellence from herself, but the injuries ripped her performance from her control. She struggled to balance her high expectations with the negative feelings she had begun to direct at herself. She began to experience serious depression.
Wong hid the problems from her family, allowing in only a couple of teammates. Coaches noticed and reached out regularly. But the issues became overwhelming. In her worst moments, Wong threatened herself with suicidal thoughts, only to berate herself with her rational, scientific side. “‘Why do you feel this way?” she would ask herself. “I was very, very critical of the fact that I was feeling that way. It took me a long time to realize that it was something that I couldn’t control.
“I was searching for something at that time; something to find a passion in.”
That spring, the Ducks’ volunteer assistant coach, Tom Serratore, returned to workouts with his head shaved — a surprise to players used to seeing a dark mop on his head. It raised questions, but not as many as his request one afternoon to have the players gather at midfield, where Oregon’s signature “O” logo was painted on the grass. He asked them to lie on the ground in the shape of the number three, and used a drone to take an overhead photograph of the players and logo forming the number 30. Like a good ambassador, Serratore responded to the inevitable questions with videos, statistics and personal testimonies.
He told the players the photo was for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that raises money to fight pediatric cancers. Serratore had been organizing fundraisers for the organization for a decade, starting when he was in high school and continuing throughout his career as a goalkeeper at Valparaiso. Serratore shaved his head every year to show solidarity with the kids who had no choice, he told the players. The photo they’d just taken was to recognize the $30 million St. Baldrick’s had raised to fight pediatric cancer that year.
Serratore sent the players links to a few videos that further explained the cause. That night, Caitlyn watched them on her iPhone as she prepared for bed. She had never thought about childhood cancer before. She’d never realized how differently the disease presents in children, or how little funding was available. It tugged at her: The information related to her biochemistry studies; the faces of the children spurred her desire to follow her grandmother’s public service footsteps.
Caitlyn thought about how she might help others.
She sent a text to Serratore.
“I want to talk to you about this.”
By investing herself in service to others through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Caitlyn Wong says she found a passion and a career purpose that helped her overcome the severe depression she’d been battling.
The passion kindled at the perfect moment. By the time Wong was ready to present a proposal in fall 2016 to host a St. Baldrick’s event, a fourth knee injury — this time a tear of her meniscus cartilage in her left knee — hobbled yet another season. Surgery removed 40 percent of the cartilage, and joint lubrication shots helped her reach the end of a season in which Oregon came within one win of scoring the program’s first postseason appearance since its relaunch in 1996. But Oregon head coach Kat Mertz could see it putting pressure on her.
Mertz looked over Wong’s proposal with a sense of awe. When Wong first talked to Serratore about the idea that spring, he had advised her to start small. There were so many details to consider for even a small event — facility considerations, infrastructure, media coverage. Serratore’s first event barely pulled in $5,000. Even a small event could be overwhelming. Yet Mertz could see Wong was already thinking bigger.
In the proposal — Mertz guesses it was 15 pages long — Wong laid out her vision for a festival-style fundraiser, filled with games to entertain people, food to make it social, educational booths to raise awareness about pediatric cancers and a soccer tournament to anchor everything. Her fundraising goal was aggressive for a first-time event: $15,000.
For other students, Mertz may have looked at the proposal as a quaint dream. But Wong had earned a reputation for fulfilling difficult tasks. The way she handled her injury rehab, sometimes working hard enough to return far quicker than a typical prognosis would suggest, left little question about her ability to power her way toward success. Mertz also saw an opportunity to relieve some of the pressure her captain was placing on herself.
“Just be you,” Mertz told Wong when they met to discuss the proposal. “Be Caitlyn. Focus on St. Baldrick’s. Try to take the stress of the team away. … Just really focus on something different besides soccer right now.”
That winter, Wong gathered together her new team: 12 women’s soccer players, a member of the football team, two fellow biochemistry majors and a journalism student. Wong split them into committees that handled finances, promotions, education, and recruitment of barbers and people willing to get their heads shaved. She worked with her biochemistry peers to develop educational elements at the festival to help people better understand cancer, believing awareness would lead to action.
Wong captained the effort like a veteran fundraiser. She arrived at meetings with thick binders full of the emails they’d sent, forms they needed to complete, and lengthy checklists of to-dos. Through her leadership, the volunteers — many driven by the personal connections they’d had with cancer — leaped at opportunities in marketing, finances and university relations, even when they had no experience in those areas.
One of Wong’s soccer teammates, Emily Kaestner, had two childhood friends battle cancer. She watched a friend fight leukemia before she was 10, and lost a high school friend to an inoperable brain tumor.
“I was kind of powerless,” Kaestner says of her friend’s death, “and so this kind of gives me a sense of power and a reason to actually do something, and I’m actually seeing results.”
The results started coming faster than anyone expected as the team campaigned with the athletics department, the Greek community and other departments on campus. By the beginning of April, more than three weeks before the event, they already had passed their aggressive goal of $15,000. And as Baldfest grew closer, the number kept climbing.
Between them, Caitlyn Wong and Tom Serratore have raised nearly $200,000 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
On the sunny April day when the clouds parted and Baldfest arrived, kids won prizes for knocking over cans, shooting goals or spinning a wheel, lending the event a carnival atmosphere.
Oregon Athletics Director Rob Mullens spoke to the crowd about the day’s significance, then sat down to have his head shaved.
Serratore joined him, as did softball public address announcer Peg Rees, two student-athletes, assistant soccer coach Manny Martins, and a dozen others.
Helping to shave their heads were two local cancer survivors: Scarlet Craig, a 7-year-old in remission from neuroblastoma, and Sophia Malinoski, 10, who already had helped raise money for cancer research by designing logos for helmets and sideline gear worn in a game by Oregon’s football team.
Hundreds of people filed through Papé Field throughout the day. And when Oregon State, Portland State and Oregon teams composed of current and former players took the field for a seven-on-seven women's exhibition tournament, some of the largest home crowds Oregon had drawn for any of its matches were there to watch. To the side, Wong’s fellow biochemistry students ran educational booths, using their knowledge to help the attendees better understand cancer and its causes.
Serratore watched the enthusiasm among the kids in attendance, the layers of attractions and interest in the crowd, and felt awed. Wong had found a way to pull the school together — to combine its academic offerings with the visibility of athletics in a way that was entertaining and inclusive.
The result: Baldfest raised more than $37,000. “What they put together really blew my mind,” Serratore said. “I sit here and go, ‘Wow, she did all this in the first year.’”
And it won’t just be one year. Because even though Wong is making preparations for medical school — she’ll take the MCAT this spring — she’s already laying the groundwork for another Baldfest and a succession plan to ensure the event will continue after she leaves.
After a frustrating year in which the path ahead felt obstructed by a cloud of injuries and depression, Baldfest gave Wong the chance to heal herself by investing in others. It also gave her studies a purpose.
“I really think that I’m going to be working as a physician scientist in the field of childhood cancer now,” Wong says. “I can help them in more ways, in ways in addition to helping fundraise. I can help them naturally in a research laboratory. I can help them in a patient’s room. I can work with them as a doctor. This really inspired me to sort of shift my path.”