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Playing with pain: Gainesville lineman takes field with heavy heart
Gainesville lineman Rafael Upchurch holds a photo of is brother, Rob, who died in August. - photo by Tom Reed

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Rafael Upchurch is a fearless and imposing lineman who carries around a heavy heart. 

Every day he puts on the pads for Gainesville, which hosts to top-ranked Sandy Creek (12-0) in the state quarterfinals tonight, it’s in memory of his older brother, Rob Upchurch, who lost his battle with colon cancer on Aug. 20.

“Losing my brother felt awful,” the 290-pound Upchurch said with tears in his eyes. “We were so close and did everything together.

“I loved him a lot.”

Now every block and big hit Upchurch makes for the Red Elephants (11-1) is done in honor of his brother. Upchurch still looks up in the stands at City Park Stadium knowing that Rob, who friends and family called Big Rob, would be cheering louder than anyone if he was there to see him make a huge hit.

And huge hits have been pretty common this season. After moving back to the offensive line from defense following the Buford game in Week 1, Gainesville coach Bruce Miller says Upchurch has been one of his most valuable lineman for his combination of size, strength and speed. 

They even have offensive packages in place to line Upchurch up in the backfield, which is met with a big grin. 

“I love getting to play the blocking back,” Upchurch said. “I get a running start on getting to hit people.”

Miller says that Upchurch has really thrived on the football field this season, and probably mostly as a way to remember his big brother. 

“Rafael is just a guy that’s a natural on the offensive line,” said Miller, adding Upchurch could play as high as the Division I-AA level in college. 

Following such a terrible tragedy, Upchurch says that football has been an immense source of therapy and a positive outlet to channel his pain after the disease took his brother’s life at only 27 years old.

“I’d probably be a mess if I didn’t have football,” Upchurch said. “I can go out on the field and get all my anger out.”

His mother Patricia agrees. She was worried about Rafael at first since he’s a young man who tends to keep his feelings to himself. However, she quickly saw him flip a switch and decide that football was going to be the way he would honor Rob’s memory. 

“I’m just so proud of Rafael,” his mother said.  

Rafael and his older brother had big plans together before cancer came into his life in Feb. 2010. Rob had promised his little brother that he’d take him to all his college recruiting trips to sit down with coaches and tour campuses. Not a day went by that they weren’t together. The Upchurch brothers were always playing video games and just laughing together as brothers do. Not a Sunday went by during football season that they weren’t at the Wild Wing Cafe watching games at the same table. 

“They had so many big plans,” Patricia said.

However, when cancer came into his big brother’s life, the tables turned. Rafael was the one who was taking his brother to his chemotherapy sessions. According to their mother, Rob went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy and two major surgeries while trying to beat the colon cancer. 

Upchurch says that the toughest moment during Rob’s illness came two weeks before he passed away. Doctors had already informed the family there was nothing more they could do, despite a proactive medical plan to fight the disease. Rob called Rafael into his room to apologize for not being able to make good on all the promises of things they’d do in the future. However, Rafael put his ailing brother’s mind at ease. 

“My brother was apologizing for not being able to fight hard enough,” Rafael said. 

“When Rob said that, Rafael said ‘don’t worry bro,” Patricia recalled.

During his mourning, Upchurch found that his football team was like an extended family. The team took time out during preparations for its season opener to attend the visitation and funeral of their teammate’s brother. 

That token of friendship meant the world to Upchurch. 

And even though Miller told Upchurch to take as much time off as needed after his brother’s death, he was right back on the practice field two days later. Rafael knew that’s exactly where his brother would want him. 

And ever since then he’s been on a mission to put defenders through torture. He’s jumping at the chance to go toe-to-toe against Sandy Creek defensive lineman Quinteze Williams, who is verbally committed to the University of Florida. 

Upchurch gets a kick out of seeing a defender out in the open field and throwing a ‘flatback’ block that springs a running lane for Gainesville’s ball carrier. He said the Region 8-AAA championship game against Stephens County and the next week in the playoff-opener against Dalton were his best games of the season, where he racked up about 10 ‘flatbacks’.

And every time he lands a big hit, he’s thinking about Big Rob. 


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