“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
The words of cancer-stricken former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano from 1993 resonate today for Taquarius Wair.
“It’s something I use every day. I go through stuff, and I fight through and never give up,” said Wair, who suffered severe burns in a 2005 house fire and was given only a 20% chance to live. He went on to become a starter for the Minneapolis North High School football team and last fall competed as a backup running back at Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minn.
Valvano’s words are even more fitting because Wair will be honored with the 2020 Jimmy V Award for Perseverance during the ESPYs on June 21 (8 p.m., ESPN). The award is given to a member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ESPYs won’t be awarded live on stage. Instead, ESPN producers and executives used creative ways to surprise the honorees, and their stories will be told during the awards show. ESPN aired a heartwarming “SportsCenter” feature on Wair last fall, and that led to his ESPY.
“When we all viewed TQ’s story again, we just realized he was actually the embodiment of perseverance, the spirit of the Jimmy V Award,” said Rob King, a senior vice president for ESPN.
The story Wair’s perseverance started March 22, 2005, when a fire swept through the Minneapolis house where his mother, Shawnee Wair, and her four children lived. Three children — Richard, 9, Taquarius, 4, and Ulani, 3 — made it out alive, but Shawneece, 6, died of smoke inhalation.
Wair suffered third-degree burns over 55% of his body and lost four fingers on his left hand. He was in a coma for a month and required a series of skin grafts and other surgeries while growing up. Through it all, he tried to stay positive.
“Every surgery I had helped me,” he said. “If I knew I needed it, I was going to get it, and it was going to help me in my future. I wasn’t really stressing over it.”
Along the way, Wair was bitten by the football bug. At age 7, he was determined to play the sport.
“I fell in love with football the moment I touched the field,” he said.
“I realized I was actually good, and it became my favorite sport.”
Added King, “He says in the [ESPN feature] that his life became memorable when he found football.”
Wair followed his football dream to North High, where he started on defense and was a backup running back for the Polars as a senior. His goal was to play college football, and he’s building on that achievement at Mesabi Range.
“It’s a junior college, but that’s not too bad for one year of varsity,” said Wair, who started on special teams for the Norsemen.
Wair was informed of his ESPY a couple of weeks ago as a surprise, and that moment will be part of the awards show. King is keeping it under wraps, only hinting at “willful co-conspirators” involved in the announcement.
“The joy that he expresses once he is surprised by a special guest and the joy that his family shows just took it to a whole new level,” King said.
Wair is honored by the Jimmy V Award and takes its meaning to heart.
“For me, perseverance is never giving up on your dream and your belief, no matter what you believe in,” he said. “… As long as you keep your head straight and focus on what you want to do with your life, everything will be all right.”