Woodland Junior Jaxon Smith, top, the defending state champ, battles it out with North Paulding sophomore Matthew Veiga during last month’s wrestling dual to benefit the Cash family.
BY DONNA HARRIS
Like most people on social media, Chris and Tressa Cash watched the hilarious ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos being posted on Facebook during the summer of 2014.
Little did they know that in less than two years, they would be fighting the very disease for which those videos were raising awareness and money.
Cash, 51, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, in March 2016, roughly 19 months after the ALS Association’s unique fundraising/awareness campaign.
“When we participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, it was fun, and everyone was doing it,” Cash’s wife, Tressa, said. “It was all laughs when we would watch all our friends on Facebook taking the challenge. Never did we even imagine we would be supporting a cause that would directly affect us.”
At the time, the Dallas family — which includes three sons, Lee, 25, a Marine stationed in Minneapolis; Jesse, 21, a student at Chattahoochee Technical College; and Blake, 17, who lives with his grandparents in Cartersville so he can finish his senior year at Woodland High School — was told its patriarch had three to five years to live “so we are thankful for every day,” Mrs. Cash said.
“Chris is struggling, as he is losing permanent function of his arms and ability to swallow,” she said. “He is still able to walk short distances from his chair to bed, restroom, etc. He is a fighter. ALS has taken his mobility but not his spirit.”
ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — took his ability to work as well, forcing him to end his 25-year career with WEB Electrical Contractors in August 2016.
The decrease in income, coupled with Cash’s medical expenses, has left the family with financial needs that exceed what Mrs. Cash, 49, brings home as a professional photographer, but help has always been just around the corner.
“The communities surrounding us have been unbelievable,” Mrs. Cash said. “There are times that we have nothing, and God would lead people to help us at just the right times — from fundraisers to anonymous cards left in our mailbox with hundreds of dollars in gift cards, people who just decide to Venmo and PayPal us money just because. And prayers. We have thousands of people praying for Chris, and he knows it. We are so thankful for the family and community that we have been blessed with.”
Among those guardian angels are the wrestling programs at Woodland, where Lee was a wrestler and Blake currently is a wrestler and football player, and North Paulding High, where Jesse wrestled.
On Nov. 20, the two teams sponsored Wrestle for Cash, a senior-night wrestling dual, in the WHS Performing Arts Center and donated all money raised to the Cash family.
A wrestling dual is a match-up between two teams where all 14 weight classes are contested, Tramutola said. The points from the 14 individual matches between Woodland’s and North Paulding’s varsity wrestlers were totaled to determine the winner.
“Every year, we host a benefit dual and choose an organization to donate all the proceeds to,” WHS head wrestling coach Adrian Tramutola said. “This year, we have chosen the Cash family. Tressa has been a constant in both the Woodland and North Paulding communities. This has left Tressa as the sole caregiver, parent, provider for her husband and kids.”
Choosing to “directly impact one of our own” by naming the Cashes as beneficiaries of this year’s dual proceeds was an “easy choice,” according to Tramutola.
“It’s something we see every day; it’s real to us,” he said. “It’s not like picking an organization, having an event then mailing off a check. They’re with us every day, on the weekends at tournaments and in multiple other settings. So the opportunity to help one of our own was a no-brainer.”
The coach, in his 12th year at Woodland, said the Cashes have been “part of our school and program for over 10 years now,” and he “couldn’t even begin to count the amount of lives [Mrs. Cash] and her family have touched through school, wrestling, football and her photography.”
“She’s an extremely hard-working and funny woman,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine the weight of all that she does. But one thing I do know is she does it all. You never hear her complain or give excuses. She just does what her and her family need to do. That takes an extremely strong person physically and mentally, and for that, I have a tremendous amount of respect for her.”
Mrs. Cash, who was notified about two weeks before the dual that her family was this year’s beneficiary, said she, her husband and her sons were “so touched by this event and the fact that Coach T chose us for this.”
“We have been a part of this program since 2009 when our oldest son was a freshman,” she said, noting Blake participated in the dual, and she and her husband attended with Jesse and the grandparents, Garry and Libby Rogers and William Amburgey. “They are more like family than a team. Also our son, Jesse, graduated from and wrestled for North Paulding so it was extra-special because they are like family also.”
Mrs. Cash said she she thought she’d be “able to hold it together” during the event until emcee Chris Frye, who’s been involved with the program for years, started talking.
“I lost it,” she said. “Plus, it was senior night so I was a mess. Walking across the stage with Chris was tough because future events in life run through my mind, and without him, it will be tough.”
Tramutola said the initial idea for the wrestling fundraiser came to him eight or nine years ago during an in-service where Bartow County School System homeless liaison Kelly Whitmire spoke.
“Her presentation stuck with me all day,” he said. “So that night, I sent her an email asking her if we could help and pitched the idea of having a wrestling match and donating all of the proceeds to her program.”
The wrestling team has sponsored the dual every year since, except for times when “Mother Nature hasn’t always cooperated,” Tramutola said.
“The Wrestle for Cash dual was actually scheduled for last year but was snowed out, and we were unable to reschedule it,” he said. “So this year, we moved the date up much earlier in the season.”
Tramutola said WHS continues to have the benefit wrestling dual every year “for several reasons.”
“The obvious reason is to help an organization, family or person in need,” he said. “As a coach, I want our kids to be part of something bigger than themselves or wrestling. We’ve been very fortunate at Woodland to have the success that we’ve had. That success doesn’t happen without the support of many.”
Team members have had “tremendous support” from their parents and members of the community every year when facing the “daunting task” of raising the roughly $40,000 needed annually to operate the program, the coach said.
“Each year, we set out to ask people to invest in our kids and to help provide them with every opportunity to be successful,” he said. “We have several people and local businesses that have continued to support the program long after the student they originally agreed to sponsor graduated. So it’s important that we do our part to give back. I want our kids to understand the impact they have on our school and community far beyond wrestling.”
By the end of the night, the dual had raised “right around” $3,000 from ticket sales, donations sent in by supporters who couldn’t make it and a $250 check from the North Paulding team’s parents, “which was a great gesture by them,” Tramutola said.
“I thought we had a great turnout,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to say we had to turn people away at the door, but the crowd we had was awesome. We had a large number of students that came out, which was great. In the past, it has been a little quiet in the PAC at first, mainly, I think, because it’s a unique setting, and people are still trying to figure out if they can yell and scream and cheer like they would normally do in a gym. But this year’s crowd wasted no time and got behind our team from the start, and it lasted through the match. I think our team really fed off them, and they fed off our team’s performance. So again, I would really like to thank everyone that came out to support the event.”
Mrs. Cash also was grateful to everyone who has “attended any event held on our behalf.”
“Your support means the world to us,” she said.
Anyone who would like to help out the Cash family can make a donation through PayPal at [email protected] or through Venmo at @tress-cash.