Rudy Ortega last saw his close friend two months ago in the chill of Chicago.
They caught a Bears game with two other buddies, each bundled up head to toe. They were there to laugh about old times, to be kids again. And to watch Lance Briggs, the star linebacker for the Bears and a former teammate and classmate at Elk Grove High School in the late 1990s.
Ortega came away thinking Jeremy Callaway was right. He was going to beat cancer the way he always seemed to beat his opponent – with tenacity and force – when they played basketball for the Thundering Herd 14 years earlier.
Then Ortega fielded the call this past Saturday, and had to sit to compose himself. Callaway died in his sleep Jan. 3 at age 32.
“Can’t believe we lost him, and it just makes you enjoy what you have because we just lost someone special,” Ortega said Monday, the emotions thick in his voice. “Colon cancer, Stage 3. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll beat it.’ He never wanted people to worry about him, and we thought he was going to be OK. He thought he was going to be OK. That’s what makes it so hard.”
Callaway, who worked for Wells Fargo in North Carolina, leaves behind his wife, Laurie, and a young daughter. Services are pending. His loss reverberated through Elk Grove and Sacramento State, where he was a scholarship football player for coach John Volek and where he earned All-Big Sky Conference academic honors.
Two nights before his death, Callaway chatted at length with his parents, still living in Elk Grove, through video. And hours before he died, Callaway spoke to his sister, Carrie, in Sacramento for an hour by phone.
“He went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” said Rob Callaway, Jeremy’s father. “Jeremy talked about how good he felt, and he looked good, too, from what we saw on FaceTime. He went to the hospital on New Year’s Eve because he couldn’t keep anything down and was dehydrated. They changed his medicine, and he was able to eat, and he said he was feeling so much better.”
Losing a son is one thing. Losing one who was optimistic about his prognosis is entirely different, Rob said.
“We’re waiting on the autopsy report to see what really got him,” Rob said. “Jeremy’s doctor doesn’t feel it was cancer that killed him. We’re hoping it was an aneurysm or something that took him peacefully.”
Ortega said sports fans appreciated Callaway because he was an “everyman” sort of athlete. Callaway wasn’t especially big at a lanky 6-foot-2, nor was he particularly fast or skilled. But tough? Callaway was the very definition of it, Ortega said.
“That’s exactly what he was,” Ortega said. “People root for that.”
I remember compiling The Bee’s All-Metro football team following the 1998 season and wondering where to place Callaway. He was the unsung performer for Elk Grove’s 14-0 team, still viewed by many area coaches and reporters as the best team in Sac-Joaquin Section history. The group was star-heavy with Briggs, The Bee’s Player of the Year that season, and record-setting quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie. Briggs once said: “We wouldn’t have been great without Jeremy Callaway.”
Callaway scored 20 touchdowns, rushing and receiving, in 1998, so he was a natural as an All-Metro slot player, a position specifically created for him. Callaway also played linebacker and on special teams. At Sac State, he had starts at free safety, linebacker and special teams in the early 2000s.
“Callaway helped us turn the tide at Sac State,” said Volek, now retired. “He was a big part of our success. He was just a football player. Such sad news.”
Callaway’s other sport was basketball. He was the defensive stopper for coach Todd Reiswig on an Elk Grove team that spent parts of the 1998-99 season ranked No. 1 by The Bee. Reiswig, a mathematics instructor at Elk Grove High who also works at the school district office, said Callaway was the best on-ball defender he ever coached. And an even better gentleman.
“I just loved that kid,” Reiswig said. “He played all 32 minutes of every game for us. He couldn’t dribble or shoot very well, and he’d take one shot a game and bank it in, but he was such a tenacious defender. I’d go scout a team we’re going to play, and the first thing I’d think was, ‘OK, that’s who Jeremy will guard.’ That’s the ultimate team player.”