When Kelsey Huff steps to the circle on Soni McAlister Field, there’s no discernable difference between her jersey and those of her USC teammates.
Until you flip hers inside out.
Pressed on her inner threads, where her uniform hits her heart, read the letters “SH” for her father, Scott Huff, a former six-season National Lacrosse League player for the New York Saints and club lacrosse coach, who for the first time won’t be able to travel cross-country from his home in Eastport, New York, to watch his daughter play. He has made the 3,000-mile trip to Los Angeles dozens of times to see Kelsey and her now-graduated sister, Kaeli, suit up in Cardinal and Gold.
But on Jan. 11, Scott Huff’s travel plans came to a halt. He was taken to Stony Brook University Hospital for what seemed like lingering brain fog after recovering from COVID-19. Six hours later, he was told he had tumors on his brain and lungs, which he later found out was metastatic melanoma. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer.
Now, Huff is facing his toughest opponent yet. Fueled by the support of the lacrosse community and his home team, he’s determined to beat it.
“The lacrosse community, especially, has been amazing,” said Teresa Huff, Scott’s wife. “From the youth lacrosse teams to the Yellow Jackets and the high school team, to when Scott played for the Saints, everyone is reaching out and they’ve rallied around him. The number of actual phone calls where people call up and want to talk to Scott, know what’s going on and what they can do is incredible. People are game ready and want to help any way they can.”
The Huffs redefine what it means to be family-oriented. Born just 14 months apart, Kaeli and Kelsey were seemingly inseparable — playing together at Eastport-South Manor High School and again at USC — before Kaeli decided to use her extra year of eligibility closer to home at Stony Brook while Kelsey continued to star in Los Angeles. Their brother Ryan, born 17 months after Kelsey, is a redshirt sophomore long-stick midfielder at Penn State. Now they’re all separated by a continent yet drawn closer by their dad’s diagnosis, finding unique ways to stay connected and keep family spirits high, almost always involving a stick and some twine.
“My dad has never sat in the house for this long in his whole life,” said Kaeli Huff, who works from home. “He’s always traveling to games, working. The one thing that’s stayed constant is that we pull up ESPN every day, and we have all lacrosse games on constantly.”
Not football, not basketball. Lacrosse.
Scott Huff is one of six siblings who grew up playing lacrosse. All of them live on Long Island, arguably the epicenter of the sport. Eastport, a small hamlet and high school lacrosse powerhouse, is the Huff headquarters. With a population of about 2,000 people, at least 24 of them are Huffs, including ESM boys’ lacrosse coach Kevin Huff.
“Living here was the best decision we’ve ever made,” Teresa Huff said.
The Huff kids are years out of high school, but Kaeli and Kelsey’s former high school coach Becky Thorn and the ESM girls’ lacrosse team are dedicating their May 2 game — during Brain Tumor Awareness Month — against Mattituck to the Huff family, selling T-shirts designed for Scott as a fundraiser.
“Everyone here loves the Huffs,” Thorn said. “If you ever needed something, a simple tire change, Scott would be there.”
The Huffs grew up with fiddlesticks in hand, talk three times a day and support each other no matter the cause. “We’re all just best friends,” Kelsey Huff said.
After one of Scott’s first treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, Teresa and Kelsey stayed with him in a hotel. He had a rough night, which was hard for Teresa to see. So in the pitch-black middle of the night, assuming everyone else was asleep, she started to cry.
That’s when she heard Kelsey.
“Mom, this is just temporary,” Kelsey said. “It will be OK.”
Teresa Huff found comfort in her kids, when usually, she and her husband comfort them. That’s still the case. One week after Scott underwent a Feb. 7 craniotomy to remove the largest tumor, they drove to State College, Pennsylvania, where Ryan had surgery to repair his torn ACL and MCL.
“This guy was not even a week out of getting his head cut open, and there he was in the hospital with me when I was getting my surgery,” Ryan Huff said. “We would do anything for each other. No one’s ever left alone.”
At night, Ryan awoke every hour to see his mom icing his leg for him, 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off, as the doctor ordered. “She’s definitely been the glue of this whole operation,” he said. “She had a whole spreadsheet of the medicines I needed to be taking and the medicines my dad needed to be taking.”
Teresa Huff put her job as a county court reporter on pause to be there for her husband and stepped into a new role as chauffeur and nurse. Shortly after Ryan’s surgery, Scott had a seizure, causing him and Teresa to head home early. While Teresa continued to call Ryan to remind him to take his medicines, people continued to call Scott. He had not spoken to some of them in 50 years.
“After this, I’ll never take for granted a simple text or phone call again,” Kaeli Huff said. “The people reaching out to my dad lifted his spirits. After getting all these messages and seeing how loved he is, he’s truly flipped a switch and is ready to go with all these treatments.”
In March, Scott’s sister, Susan, started a GoFundMe to raise money for the Huffs while Scott takes leave from work. In six days, family, friends and former players and teams left heartfelt messages while donating more than $175,000. At the date of publication, the GoFundMe has eclipsed $205,000.
It’s hard to explain how much the support from donors, extended family and teammates means. It’s why, before USC’s first game against San Diego State on Feb. 12, when Kelsey Huff first saw her dad’s initials etched into her jersey, she didn’t say anything. She just cried.
“I play for every single girl around me, but this year, especially, I play for my dad,” she said.
After seeing the pink “SH” with a heart next to it and not having told her teammates of her dad’s cancer battle yet, she ran out of the locker room and called her parents.
“When we picked up the FaceTime, she was hysterically crying. We thought something was wrong,” Teresa Huff said. “By the end, I think we were all in tears. It was amazing for [USC coach] Lindsey [Munday] and the athletic department to do that because it’s so hard for Scott not to be there. We hope it helps Kelsey in our absence because Scott is her best friend.”
Second-seeded USC will meet third-seeded Arizona State in the Pac-12 semifinals this week. In 12 games, Huff has a career-high 44 goals. The newly crowned Pac-12 Midfielder of the Year (who also won the award in 2021) is also shooting a career-best 52.4 percent for a USC team that has resided comfortably in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Top 20.
Losing is irregular in the Huff house, and Scott’s battle is no different.
“Scott’s surgeon said 10 years ago, our conversation with doctors would be very different than what it is now,” Teresa Huff said. “There are therapies and treatments proven to be very successful. Without a doubt, we are hopeful. Scott’s always a positive person, and it waxes and wanes a little, but he’s going to do this. He’s going to do this for his family.”
*Editor’s note: Theresa Huff indicated to USA Lacrosse Magazine in a recent update that Scott Huff’s treatments are doing more harm than good. The family’s priority now is to make sure he is comfortable.