JONESBORO — As a veteran Clayton County police officer and member of the elite SMASH unit, Michael Hooks could be perceived by the public as one tough dude.
It took a diagnosis of stage three testicular cancer to knock him to his knees — and the overwhelming support of his brothers and sisters in blue to lift him off the ground. A softball tournament, the third fundraiser to help Hooks with expenses, is being held Saturday at Gerald Matthews Park in Lovejoy.
For Hooks, 31, the rallying around him since his ordeal began in February has left him speechless.
“It’s really hard to put into words,” he said. “It’s amazing. The fundraisers are helping out financially and morale-wise.”
The Jackson native has worked at the Clayton department the past four years. He is single but his brother and parents, who live in Forsyth, have provided him a strong foundation of support.
But his fellow officers, and deputies at the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, have been most supportive, he said.
“The guys from my unit have sat with me while I get chemo treatments,” said Hooks. “We’re talking about six or seven hours of just sitting there with me. That means a lot. They are constantly calling me and checking on me, sending me well wishes. That has all definitely helped me. When I first started chemo, it would have been so easy to just give up.”
Hooks was living a routine life, working, hanging out with the guys, playing softball when he discovered something wasn’t right in his genitals. A doctor’s visit later and his world changed.
“I have stage three testicular cancer and that’s as bad as it gets with that type of cancer,” he said. “I had surgery in April where they did a biopsy.”
Cancer confirmed, Hooks started chemotherapy June 4. It is a treatment that separates the men from the boys and rarely leaves the men standing. Although he was warned by the doctors to expect chemo to be “rough,” Hooks said he considered the advice to be subjective.
“Some people think getting a shot is rough, you know?” he said. “I started off thinking that I’m tough, it’s not gonna be all that rough. But after that first week, I was like a little baby. It knocked me way backward. Without the support I’ve gotten, I don’t know that I’d be here today. It knocked me down bad.”
Since then, Hooks’ life has been a desperate attempt to get ahead of the cancer, a whirlwind of hospital stays, doctor visits and chemo. By the time the players take the field Saturday, Hooks will have eight weeks of treatment behind him and four to go.
“Four more weeks can sound like a lot but it’s good news to me because it was 12 weeks,” he said. “I’m still nervous. They’re pumping poison into my veins.” Hooks paused. “As far as life goes, this is as bad as it can get, you know?”
During a particularly low point, the entire SMASH unit showed up for his chemo treatment.
“I was having a really rough week, the chemo was really getting to me,” he said. “The whole unit showed up at Kaiser with balloons and candy, which really lifted my spirits.”
Hooks has health insurance coverage through his job and accumulated leave but even that could run out before he is ready to go back to work.
“Aug. 24 is the end of chemo and I’m hoping to be able to return to work by the end of August or beginning of September,” he said. “I know even after then, I will have doctor visits and check-ups. I’m running out of leave and if I don’t have that, I won’t have money to pay my bills.”
That’s where the fundraisers come in. Clayton police Lt. Chris Windley said a recent cookout raised about $3,000, not including donations. A poker game raked in some more cash for Hooks.
Saturday’s tournament was organized by Alex Arroyo. Arroyo’s brother, Clayton police Sgt. Eric Arroyo, is Hooks’ supervisor.
“All the money we raise goes to Michael, so we’re trying to raise as much money as we can,” said Alex Arroyo. “If the bills are taken care of, it makes getting through all this easier for him.”
Even Hooks didn’t expect such an outpouring of support. He bought dark blue rubber bracelets stamped “Stay Strong Hooks” to sell to raise money for himself. The $5 bracelets have been selling like hotcakes within the police department, sheriff’s office and the fire department. Anyone can buy a bracelet from a member of law enforcement. There is also an account at SunTrust taking donations in the officer’s name.
All donations are accepted.
For weeks, Hooks has spent 90 percent of his time sitting in his recliner.
“I watch a lot of ESPN,” he said.
Hooks will experience the excitement firsthand Saturday, though.
“Oh yes, I am going to be out there,” he said. “I wish I could play, I love softball. But I plan to toss a few balls out to warm them up. This is a perfect time for the tournament, I feel better than I have in a while.”
Arroyo said 10 teams signed up prior to the tournament but walk-up teams will be accepted until about 9 a.m. The entry fee is $200 per team. He said barbecue and raffle tickets will be sold.
Windley hopes for a big crowd.
“We ask that the public come out and enjoy the festivities and give support to this young man,” he said.
Hooks is looking forward to the end of treatment and beginning of the rest of his life. Most of all, he wants to be back at work, just one of the guys doing what he loves. He keeps his eye on that future by gazing at a photo of himself in uniform.
“I do miss the excitement, I can’t wait to get back to work,” said Hooks.