Mother inspires Sounders defender's work to fight breast cancer

SEATTLE — James Riley will never forget that spring day in 2002.

He was in his freshman year at Wake Forest, and he was doing homework in a common area when his roommate, Ryan Caugherty, walked up to him with his cell phone. Riley’s mother was on the line. Riley didn’t have a cell phone until his junior year, so anytime anyone needed to reach him, they would call his roommate knowing that Riley wouldn’t be far away.

Immediately, Riley could sense in his mother’s voice that they were about to have a serious conversation so he went to his dorm room and closed the door.

“James, I have breast cancer.”

Years later, those words still affect the Seattle Sounders defender. They always will.

“It was an unbelievable feeling to hear my mom say that she was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Riley said recently. “There were a lot of tears. I don’t think I’ve ever cried that hard before in my life.”

Since turning pro in 2005, Riley has worked to help fight breast cancer, first with the Breast Cancer Foundation in Boston and now with the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. He does everything he can in hopes that someday kids won’t have to worry about receiving that same phone call from their mother—or at the very least that they have a sufficient support system if they do get that call.

For his efforts, Riley has been named MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Month for October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

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“The stuff I do is very minute,” he said. “In the position I’m in, I just try to make people aware. It affects a lot of people, so anything I can do to help with Susan G. Komen is easy for me.”

At the time, doctors were optimistic that Riley’s mother, Chong Horton, caught it early enough that she would survive.

While it was difficult for Riley to take—he describes seeing her with no hair when he got home to Colorado Springs for spring break as a “knife in the heart”—he knew that her determination would get her through it. Harder to take, though, was the fact that that she would continue working as a housekeeper at Broadmoor Hotel and Resort in Colorado Springs through the treatments.

“For me, that was the worst feeling,” Riley said.

Riley considered leaving Wake Forest and transferring to Colorado College so he could stay home and help. However, under the assurances from some close family friends that they would help her along every step of the way, he stayed at Wake Forest, won a national championship, and finished his degree before embarking on his MLS career.

Now, Horton is fully recovered and “as vibrant as ever.” And Riley continues to do his part in promoting breast cancer awareness.

He has promoted the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in the Seattle area, showing up amidst a downpour to help at the race this past June. He also tried to have a pink ribbon sewn on his jersey for the 2010 season, but agreed instead to wear it only during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“James has a unique personality and he brings awareness to people through his notoriety,” said Cherie Skager, the Director of Outreach and Communications for the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “He’s not a survivor himself, but he speaks to the family members. This is really a family disease. It takes a family to survive breast cancer.”

In Riley’s communications with people, he encourages people to get screened, but also talks to kids about making sure their parents get screened.

On Saturday, Riley’s mother will be at Qwest Field for just the second time since he joined the Sounders. Horton will be in Seattle as part of a league-wide effort through MLS W.O.R.K.S. to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research.

“It’s a blessing to have her out here to see the game,” Riley said. “To have her here and healthy and as vibrant as ever is a real blessing.” 

Seattle isn’t alone in their celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Throughout the month of October, all 16 MLS teams will take part in activation to raise funds and awareness for the cause. In addition, special edition MLS memorabilia will be available for auction, while other special adidas products will be available for purchase at select stadiums and retailers, with portions of the proceeds benefiting Susan G. Komen for a Cure.


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