Game Day, Meet God: Superfan Canaan Sandy’s unconditional love through faith and fandom

I couldn’t miss Canaan Sandy when I walked into Sassy’s Red House in Fayetteville. No one could. The barstool he sat on was swiveled 180° — back to the bar, directly facing the restaurant’s entrance. Lifted like a pedestal, he swung his legs and watched the front door.

I had never met Canaan before, but I recognized him instantly. He wore black pants, an “Eric Musselman Live at Sassy’s” shirt, and a giddy grin. His face crinkled like someone who had been smiling for 37 years straight. His mom, Ginger, sat to his right, assuming her role as Canaan’s assistant greeter.

Everyone who stepped out of the February darkness into the warm glow of Sassy’s had two things in common. The first was that they were all there for Eric Musselman’s Monday night radio show to hear the University of Arkansas’s head basketball coach discuss all things Razorback with Chuck Barrett. The second was that they all knew the red-headed superfan on the barstool.

Canaan called each newcomer by name, greeting them with a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. He returned every “how are you?” with “better now — I missed you so much.” He told me that he missed me when I introduced myself to him, even though we had never met. Strangely enough, I felt like I had missed him too.

Canaan was born in the summer of 1982 with a hole in his heart, intestinal blockage, and no hearing. Two days later, his parents were told that he might have Down syndrome, or as Ginger prefers, be forever young.

“That was kind of earth shattering until almost immediately he starting having health issues,” Ginger said. “Pretty soon all of that worrying about being forever young went away, and we just wanted him to live. Nothing else seemed to make any difference.”

Canaan survived to create a life that few would pity. The Cave City native is a Razorback superfan who, over several years, has developed a fan base all his own. Canaan and Ginger travel hundreds of miles to Razorback games almost every weekend of the year — a tradition that they’ve had for most of Canaan’s life. His unwavering support of Razorback athletics has charmed players, coaches, and fans alike, and he has become a leader within Razorback nation.

As a through-and-through Razorback fan myself, I’ve known of Canaan for years. I don’t remember when I first heard of him, but just like the running Razorback logo or a celebratory Hog call, Canaan has been there over the course of my life as a fixture of Razorback fandom. I’ve long been one of his 13 thousand Twitter followers, keeping up with his life from a distance. I remember when Canaan scored a touchdown in the Razorbacks’ spring Red-White game in 2014, and I remember when the Sandys were given a Hogmobile in 2018. I also remember hundreds of people sending their love and encouragement to Canaan over the past year, a time that has been plagued with strokes.

Over his life, Canaan has become many things to many people. He is a follower of Christ, a devout Razorback fan, and a friend to all he meets. He’s a son, a brother, an uncle, and a 4-H Lifer. He’s a member of the ESPN Fan Hall of Fame and the Batesville Community Theatre. He’s a charming cheerleader and a world-class hugger. His green eyes sparkle with the wonder of a child and hold the wisdom of Solomon. Though his body is aging, his spirit is not.

Sitting at Sassy’s, Canaan laughed with Mrs. Terry, Coach Musselman’s secretary, about Coach Calipari being ejected from the Kentucky game after racking up back-to-back technical fouls in Bud Walton Arena. Chuck Barrett, the voice of the Razorbacks, asked Canaan his prediction on the next day’s basketball game against Auburn. Coach Musselman, the man of the hour, made a beeline to Canaan through a room of people who were there to listen to him speak. Mason Jones, the Razorbacks’ best ball handler and Co-SEC Player of the Year, followed behind to get a hug and a picture.

After each person he greeted, he turned to me and said, “remember him?” I didn’t, but he was quick to tell me.

Canaan Sandy with Razorback basketball star Mason Jones at Sassy’s Red House on February 3, 2020. Canaan and Mason bonded over their passions for theater and Razorback athletics. Photo by Emily Franks.

As the room filled with Razorback fans and the smell of fresh barbecue, Canaan was giddy, quietly calling the Hogs to himself. The freckles on his fingers blurred as he wiggled them in the air, scanning the room to recruit imitation.

When Canaan was asked to lead the Hog call before the show started, Ginger leaned over to me and said, “he pretty much rules the roost wherever he is.” A few minutes later, Canaan asked the owner of Sassy’s for a to-go cup. He was happy to get it for him.

Canaan’s giddiness might lead one to assume that this was a rare and special opportunity for Canaan. And though it was special, because it’s always special to Canaan, stealing the show at Razorback events is just part of his regularly scheduled programming.

Regardless of the Razorbacks’ success, Canaan is used to winning. He wins people over. He wins the room he’s in. Polite, personable, and passionate, Canaan often has whole-hog command over whomever is around him. But instead of abusing this attention to get his way, Canaan recruits.

Canaan’s passion recruits high school athletes to take notice of Razorback nation. Canaan’s passion recruits dejected fans to keep cheering until the final buzzer of what feels like a hopeless 4th quarter. Canaan’s passion recruits members of his church to stay after lunch for a second worship service. Canaan’s passion is unwavering and infectious. From football to faith, Canaan’s passion recruits people to buy into what Canaan has bought into.

Bud Walton Arena, also known as the Basketball Palace of Mid-America, is home to the University of Arkansas basketball teams. Canaan and Ginger Sandy travel to Bud Walton almost every weekend of the season to cheer on the Razorbacks. Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Razorbacks Basketball Instagram page (@razorbackmbb).

When Mason Jones answered a question by giving all the credit to God, the Sandys cheered from the crowd, exchanging high-fives and “Hallelujahs!” Canaan yelled, “I love you, Mason Jones!”

Though Canaan’s fame is a first for the Sandy family, he’s not the first to be Hog wild. Ginger and her husband Danny are lifelong Razorback fans. They had season tickets to home games until Canaan was born, “but then life changed a lot,” Ginger said.

The multi-generational family fandom all started with Ginger’s mother, Clara Cossey, a die-hard Razorback fan. Clara has been almost totally unconscious for months now following a bad stroke. One day this past October when Canaan was visiting his grandmother, who he calls “Mudder,” he leaned over and started calling the Hogs. Clara, who hadn’t spoken in hours, suddenly became cognizant and started calling the Hogs with him.

Though they were born into a Razorback-loving family, going the extra mile — or 200 — to support the Hogs in person every weekend is a tradition unique to Ginger and Canaan. Beyond making it to the games, they sometimes go to Fayetteville a night early to be there for the Monday night radio show or other pre-game festivities.

After the radio show ended, Ginger laughed with Assistant Coach Corey Williams, who played on the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, about how she and Canaan were at the game when Arkansas beat MJ. “Canaan was only about this big,” she said as she used her hands to measure out about a foot. “I almost threw him on the court!”

The superfan said goodbye to everyone with a hug and a “Go Hogs! Beat Auburn!” The Sandys were among the last to leave Sassy’s. The smile that was on Canaan’s face when I first spotted him hadn’t budged.

Canaan knew that I was hanging out with him so that I could tell people his story, which he was excited to share with me. When we parted for the night, Canaan said, “Put this in your story: Auburn’s going down!”

When I arrived to Bud Walton Arena several hours before the game started on Tuesday, Canaan was already on the court hyping up the team. Every player, coach, referee, security guard, and newscaster called him by name. After the student section started to fill up, he jumped in front to lead them in a Hog call.

Canaan on the court of Bud Walton Arena before the game against Auburn on February 4, 2020. This customized shirt was a gift from a fan. Photo by Emily Franks.

Canaan loved calculating what the teams’ records would be after the Hogs won the game. He loved how touched I was when he gave me a Razorback necklace. He loved passing out high fives, hugs, and “Go Hogs” to everyone who walked by. He loved singing “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, and he loved telling me that “all referees are not created equal.” He also loved seeing the cheerleaders, who he called his “dates.” Canaan loved it all. And how much Canaan loved it made me love it.

“They play for me,” Canaan said. “I know it in my heart.”

When we finished singing the last note of the national anthem, Canaan looked up at me, beaming, and said, “It’s awesome, right?” Until then, I had forgotten how awesome it was. And it was so awesome.

As always, every bone in Canaan’s body believed that the Razorbacks would beat Auburn. He welcomed fans of each team, cheered loudly for the players, and danced his heart out on the Jumbotron.

Canaan cheering on the Razorbacks during their warmup. He and his mother Ginger always arrive at least an hour early to the game so they can get a head start on cheering on the players. Photo by Emily Franks.

Auburn came back from a late 11-point deficit to beat the Razorbacks 79-76 in overtime. Canaan was mad at Auburn, just like he’s always mad at a team that beats his Razorbacks.

“Sometimes we just sit in the stands and let him deal with it,” Ginger said. “But then as soon as someone waves to him or says hello, he’s running to give them a hug and assure them that we’ll get them next time. Then he’s pretty much done with it.”

Around 9 p.m., Canaan and Ginger left to drive four and a half hours back to Cave City with all the faith in the world that the Hogs would beat Missouri on Saturday.

The two-lane highway that weaves through the rolling hills of northeast Arkansas toward Independence County is sprinkled with Baptist churches, campaign slogans, and for sale signs advertising acreage. The land is mostly barren but everyone is taken care of; there are barns and waterholes for the herds of cattle and Bible verses on billboards for drivers passing through. The highway is lined with corroded barbed wire fence — the kind of barrier that would be easy to knock over if time hadn’t petrified it into the natural landscape.

If you hang a right 12 miles north of Batesville, you’ll find the Sandys’ house at the end of the gravel. And by the time you’ve climbed the winding dirt driveway to the top of the hill, your new best friend will be waving from the front porch.

Canaan lives with his parents on their family farm in Cave City — self-proclaimed home of the world’s sweetest watermelons and the Razorbacks’ #1 fan. The Sandys’ home base overlooks 183 acres of cattle grazing land that has been passed down through the family for generations. Wind rocks the oak trees, but the wooden cabin is steady.

Danny works in commercial refrigeration while Ginger stays home with Canaan. For the most part, Canaan sleeps late. When he wakes up, he turns on SEC Network and gets 103.7 The Buzz in his ears while he waits for breakfast. He takes about 10 pills per day, and he drinks a lot of water.

“And diet pop,” Canaan said as he pointed to the 2-liter bottle of soda on the counter. “I’ve got it right here.”

Canaan’s whole day revolves around following the Hogs. He reads every article, listens to every radio show, watches every broadcast. He takes his responsibility as a Razorback superfan seriously, constantly updating his Twitter followers with scores, encouragement, and the latest in recruiting news. 

Canaan examines his collection of Razorback merchandise in his Cave City bedroom. Almost everything displayed in his room has been given to him by members of Razorback nation – from head coaches and Governors to Canaan’s own fans. Photo by Emily Franks.

Born with an unending list of medical issues, Canaan quickly dropped from 7 pounds to 5. He underwent his first surgery at 5 weeks old, and 4 weeks after that, his parents took him to his first Razorback game. Ginger and Danny admit to taking him to Fayetteville for the season opening football game that September because they couldn’t find anyone brave enough to stay with him. Ginger was prepared to have to sit in the car with him if he got too hot or started fussing, but much to she and Danny’s surprise, Canaan did well. Little did they know that that stadium would become Canaan’s second home and the people within it, his second family.

Canaan is best known as a cheerleader for others, but competing is in his blood. Canaan started competing through Arkansas 4-H at age 5. He showed pigs on a national level, joined the Arkansas Purple Circle Club for showing rabbits at the state fair, and was featured on the cover of the National Swine Association’s first youth program brochure. He also traveled with a 4-H dance group to perform across America, and he was chosen as one of 10 dancers to perform in the national talent show in Washington, D.C.

As the first ever forever young in the Arkansas 4-H system, Canaan was recognized as a Governor’s Award finalist, and in 2002, he was elected to the Arkansas 4-H Hall of Fame.

One of the reasons I wanted to get to know Canaan better was because his competitiveness intrigued me. Not because it was big or bold or intense — which it was — but because it was different. It felt cleaner, purer. Even in the face of hostility and aggression, he was gracious and compassionate.

Canaan loved the Razorbacks with a love that I had never seen in sports before. His fandom was delivered like a home-cooked meal — served warm, made with love, and expected no recognition.

Friday nights are warm up for Canaan and Ginger. When they’re not watching Canaan’s nephews play in Cave City, they travel to Friday night high school games to cheer on prospective Razorbacks. They’ve been to Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and every corner of Arkansas following recruits.

“We love to go to other schools and cheer for kids,” Ginger said. “It’s so much fun. If we ever thought we made anyone feel special, it would just be the best thing we could do because so many of these kids are so special, and we just love to show them some attention.”

Saturdays are game days. Wherever the Razorbacks are competing is where Canaan and Ginger are headed to on Saturday morning. Canaan likes to be there when the doors open so he can tell the players good luck. He also likes to walk around the stadium to welcome the opposing fans. He doesn’t want them to win, but he’ll never pass up the opportunity to wish them luck. And no matter how mad he might be after a loss, he’ll go tell the winning team’s fans congratulations and that they played a great game.

The Sandys arrive early and stay late. On their frequent day trips to Fayetteville, they drive 200 miles home after the game, often racing the sun to Cave City.

Canaan has been working on this signature hat since 1993. The first signature was Nolan Richardson. Other signatures include Darrell Walker, Joe Kleine, Matt Jones, Mike Anderson, Bret Bielema, Houston Nutt, Darren McFadden, Tony Bua, Ken Hatfield, Austin Cook, and John Daly. Photo by Emily Franks.

From going into the football locker room after a win with Tony Bua 20 years ago to throwing the first pitch at a baseball game this past year, Canaan has had his fair share of memorable Razorback moments over the years. However, no Hog wild memory can come close to rivaling his touchdown during the Red-White game.

Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks’ head football coach from 2013-2017, had a special place in his heart for Canaan and became close friends with the Sandys. After inviting the family to the football team’s Red-White spring game in 2014, Coach Bielema let Ginger in on his plan of letting Canaan score a two-point conversion.

However, toward the end of the third quarter, Ginger remembers an assistant running toward them saying, “Coach wants more!” Players and coaches whisked Canaan away. The last thing that Ginger heard the athletic director say was, “Canaan Sandy, don’t you dare drop that ball in front of 30,000 people!”

Canaan ran onto the field, took the handoff from Brandon Allen, and ran the football 50 yards to the end zone, putting the Red Team up 54-22. 

The players, coaches, and administrators huddled around Canaan in celebration. When the whooping and hollering started to die down, Canaan asked if they could pray. Everyone gathered up and said a prayer, but before they closed it, the athletic director said, “Oh, and by the way Lord — please let us beat Alabama.” Of course, everyone yelled “Amen!”

Canaan’s touchdown in the Red-White game made national headlines and earned #2 on SportsCenter that week. Coach Bielema kept his plan to let Canaan score a touchdown a secret until the last second. Photo courtesy of Ginger Sandy.

Steve Sullivan, KATV’s long time Sports Anchor, is one of Canaan’s many fans. Steve has had the well-known superfan on air with him several times, and he often catches up with the Sandys at Razorback games. In October of 2018, Steve ran into Ginger on the way out of Little Rock Touchdown Club.

“I know her life’s mission is to grant every wish that Canaan has,” Steve said, “so she drives all over the place. I saw her car and I knew she had to put a lot of miles on it, so I just casually asked how many were on there.”

When Ginger shared that the car that she and Canaan drove to games had 409,000 miles on it, Steve sent out a Tweet about how Ginger was a gift from God who was driving on a prayer.

Not long after, Mark Miller from Fletcher Dodge called Steve to tell him that he wanted to surprise the Sandys with a new car. Steve told Ginger to bring her car to Fletcher Dodge on Tuesday, but wouldn’t tell her why.

When Ginger and Canaan arrived, Frank Fletcher and Mark Miller surprised them with their new Hogmobile: a Razorback red Ford Focus.

“We didn’t even know what to say. We were so thankful,” Ginger said. “I mean it just takes so much pressure off of you. Now I don’t have to worry about us winding up on the side of the road somewhere. We’re so proud of it.”

Fletcher Dodge gave this Razorback-clad car to the Sandys when they heard about the 409,000 miles on the car Ginger and Canaan we’re driving to games. “People pull up on the side of the highway to take videos,” Ginger said. “When we’re in parking lots people run up wanting pictures. We’re so proud of it. Every time it goes down this hill it gets washed.” Photos by Emily Franks.

Ginger and Canaan only drive the car to Razorback games. Ginger says that that is why it was given to them, so they want to honor that gift. They have had the car for 16 months and have put 34,000 miles on it traveling the state for Razorback events. The only time it’s been driven to a non-sporting event is when Danny picked Canaan up from the ICU in it after a recent health complication.

“Canaan’s love comes at a great time because we’ve really gone through a tough time,” Steve said. “He shows unconditional love, which is rare in life. We’ve suffered so much lately in basketball and football, but he’s that guy that never ever jumps off the wagon. He’s 100 percent supportive of the players and the coaches, so he serves a huge purpose. During a really tough time for sports in our state, he’s the one you can count on to always support the Hogs.”

Canaan’s relentless dedication to the Razorbacks is what inspired Ginger and Krista, his older sister, to nominate him for the ESPN Fan Hall of Fame in 2013. Out of thousands of entries, Canaan was chosen as a top-10 finalist and elected in December. After nearly 32 years of pouring his heart and soul into the Razorbacks, Canaan was recognized as a Hall of Fame Fan.

ESPN flew Canaan, Ginger, a UofA Sports Information Director, and UofA’s mascot Big Red to New York City, where they explored for a few days before a limousine took them to ESPN Studios in Bristol, Connecticut. The first night, they dined with ESPN executives before retiring to their hotel rooms.

The day of the ceremony, the entire campus was decked out in flags and signs that celebrated the Fan Hall of Fame. Hannah Storm, Canaan’s favorite ESPN anchor, was the ceremony’s MC.

True to form, Canaan had the crowd stand up and call the Hogs before he even got on stage. Ginger said she was amazed by how much ESPN employees respected Arkansas, and Canaan cried when he thanked everyone during his speech.

Canaan with Hannah Storm, his favorite ESPN journalist, during the ESPN Fan Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Photo courtesy of Ginger Sandy.

When Canaan was young and Ginger first started driving him to games every weekend, Danny’s only stipulation was that they were able to find tickets.

“Danny’s agreement was that as long as you have tickets,” Ginger said, “if you’re gone every Saturday, you’re gone. If you have to spend the night, you have to spend the night. If you have to eat out, you have to get out. But you better have tickets.”

Holding up their end of the deal was made much easier after Sharon Bale met Canaan in a parade. For the next 29 years, Bale Chevrolet got Canaan and Ginger tickets to every game.

“We did football, basketball, everything,” Ginger said. “We were gone all the time for 29 years. Always at the game.”

When Bale Chevrolet recently gave up their season tickets, Canaan and Ginger lost theirs too.

Buying season tickets is outside of the Sandys’ budget, but Canaan and Ginger made it into every football game last year besides one. They made the four and a half hour drive to Fayetteville, cheered for the players at the team walk, and then drove home. Canaan was disappointed that he didn’t get to go inside, but he cheered up when Ginger reminded him that he got to encourage the players.

Canaan is well accustomed to not receiving special treatment. Though his support system is as deep as it is wide, cutting corners has never been the Sandys’ game plan. Ginger and Danny have treated their Forever Young like he was any different.

“We never used any of the words that some people might use,” Ginger said. “We never put any restrictions on him. We refused to put him in a segregated school or join the segregated groups, which has made a lot of people unhappy with us. We just didn’t see him as any different.”

In 2003, Canaan was the first forever young to graduate from Cave City High School.

Canaan was a pioneer at Cave City High School, paving the way for future forever youngs. When he graduated in 2003 at the age of 21, he was voted “Most Likely to be Remembered.” Photo courtesy of Ginger Sandy.

It’s never easy to be the first. There were lots of growing pains associated with paving the way for future forever young students in the school’s special education department. The student body accepted, encouraged, and challenged him.

Superintendent Steven Green, who Ginger says is the president of Canaan’s fan club, remembers Canaan’s years at Cave City High School as some of the best years in the school’s history.

“He’s just always been one of those young people who is adored by everyone,” Steven said. “He was the same then as he is now. Just has a servant’s heart, always wanting to lift people up, always kind, always loving. Never anything negative unless you led him in that direction.”

And though most of his peers adored Canaan, there were inevitably a few bullies who saw him as an easy target. In one particular instance, some high school boys put him up to doing something to a girl that shouldn’t be done.

When Steven called Ginger to tell her what happened, he assured her that he knew that the high school boys put Canaan up to it, but because the girl made a complaint, he had to do something to punish Canaan. Ginger agreed wholeheartedly. She was surprised, though, when Steven mentioned Canaan choosing detention over a spanking. She knew that the school’s standard discipline procedure included both.

Ginger told Danny to watch the shop that they had at the time in Cave City, and she took off toward the school. She pulled Canaan from his classroom and walked him up to the office.

Ginger: “Mr. Green, Canaan is here to take his licks.”

Mr. Green: “Oh! No, no. We don’t need to do that.”

Ginger: “Yes we do. We’ve got to make a point. In a way I understand that he was a victim, but he’s got to learn not to be victimized.”

Mr. Green told her that he couldn’t do it. “I’ll be out in the hall,” Ginger said.

After that, Ginger never remembers Canaan causing trouble at school again. She says that to protect him, they had to make a point. “I wasn’t going to baby him,” she said.

Steven, on the other hand, had a harder time punishing Canaan.

“I can remember him coming down to my office and he and I had to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong,” Steven said. “When you’d talk to Canaan, you could never be mad at him. If you were trying to correct him, he would just be saying ‘I love you’ in that sweet little tone. Canaan always wanted to make sure everyone was on good terms. It was important to him to make sure I was okay, and he’s still that way today.”

Some of Canaan’s biggest fans are teachers and administrators at Cave City High School. A few weeks ago, Canaan was inducted into the Cave City School District Sports Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of Ginger Sandy.

Canaan was the first one at Cave City schools to invoke the Arkansas Disabilities Act, allowing him to attend high school until he was 21 years old. “We were thrilled,” Steven remembers. “We would have kept him forever.” For his last three years of school, Canaan was in double reading classes and became an excellent reader.

“We wanted to get him all the reading that he could go ahead and get in case he went deaf,” Ginger said. “And he is going deaf.”

Canaan is almost totally deaf without his hearing aid now. He has about 35 percent left in one ear and no hearing in the other. A few years ago, he underwent temporalis fascia surgery, in which doctor’s cut off his ear and made a new eardrum out of cartilage, but it didn’t work. The unsuccessful procedure left so much nerve damage that the ear is no good now.

For a few years, doctors talked to Ginger and Danny about cochlear implants. Once the Sandys were on board, they found out that it was a $200,000 surgery, meaning that the family’s 20 percent share would be $40,000.

“So,” Ginger said, “we’ll just keep trying with hearing aids. A doctor got him that hearing aid, but it’s got a problem and can’t be adjusted to account for the new hearing loss. It needs to be sent off, but it takes two weeks and we don’t have anything else to replace it. They need $500, which would be fine, but the two weeks off … we have places to go! And he is totally deaf without it.”

Ginger and Danny have always known that there was a high possibility that Canaan would eventually go deaf. As his hearing worsens, the medical options to save it become more and more expensive. Photo by Emily Franks.

Deafness isn’t the only health issue that Canaan has struggled with in recent years. In January of 2018, Ginger heard Canaan call for help from his room. As soon as she laid him down on the couch, he quit breathing. His wandering green eyes locked as his skin turned red and then blue.

Several chest compressions later, she saw Canaan’s eyes start to light up. He took his first breath in what Ginger said felt like minutes. “I’ve got to get you to the hospital,” Ginger told him before darting off to grab her phone and keys. When she came back out, Canaan was gone.

“He had gotten up and walked to the car by himself,” Ginger said. “He knew he needed help.”

When they arrived at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, they found out that Canaan had an internal mass of stones that had released, causing a sharp pain so intense that it threw Canaan into shock. Following multiple procedures, including a gallbladder removal, Canaan stayed in the intensive care unit for 11 days.

Canaan’s health stabilized until the next spring when he had his first stroke. After a few nights in the hospital, the Sandys returned home on Saturday. Around 11 p.m. on Sunday, Ginger heard Canaan say, “Momma, I want my eyes back.” She and Danny knew he was having another seizure — the second of what would become a series of five strokes.

The morning after the second stroke, Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin coincidentally called to check in on his friend Canaan. After Ginger filled him in, Tim told her to get Canaan to Little Rock as quickly as she could.

When the Sandys arrived at the Arkansas Heart Hospital, a cardiologist, neurologist, and surgeon were waiting on them. The team of doctors found a massive hole in Canaan’s heart. Miraculously, they were able to mend it with a disc, avoiding open heart surgery.

Canaan still battles chest pains, heat flashes, digestive complications, and sleepless nights. He spends a lot of time at doctor appointments in Little Rock, where Ginger feels lucky to have so many people like Tim Griffin who support Canaan.

Tim remembers meeting Canaan at the Cave City Watermelon Festival in 2014 when he was first running for office. Ginger told Tim that her son would like to meet him, so he found Canaan.

“He was extremely outgoing, and I was loving that because I’m outgoing,” Tim said. “We just started having a good time talking about the Razorbacks. We were chatting and hugging and posting pictures on social media and all that. That was sort of the start of it. He was just such a nice guy.”

After Tim became Lieutenant Governor, Canaan dropped into his office on a few occasions to catch up. Then in 2016, Tim was asked to sing at The Buzz Christmas Karaoke. Canaan, who was also going to perform, asked Tim if he wanted to do it as a team.

“Canaan picked out a song and we bonded doing karaoke together,” Tim said. “We’ve just been friends ever since.”

The Lieutenant Governor connecting the Sandys with specialists at the heart hospital is just one of a million examples of people with a lot on their plates taking time to look out for Canaan. Tim said he thinks that people across the state rallying around Canaan speaks to the tight knit community of Arkansas.

“We’re really like one big family, you know?” he said. I felt lucky to know.

“His positivity shines through and sets an example,” Tim said. “He’s mostly known in the world of athletics, particular as it relates to the Razorbacks, where he’s always optimistic and full of joy and happiness. People know about him in the college athletics context, but it overflows into all of life. It sets a good example for everyone. He’s like a light in a room.”

The strokes have hurt Canaan’s speech, and his new trouble with spelling and arranging words has made it hard for him to write. Until his strokes, Canaan would sit at the table and write all day, copying book after book.

Ginger said she doesn’t worry about Canaan’s future. When she said that that was something she leaves to God, I took her word for it. But when I heard her play “‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus” for the opening hymn, I believed her.

Right when I thought that all known civilization had ended 20 miles back, I rounded a bend and spotted Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church at the top of the approaching hill. The gravel lot had six cars – all backed into spots – and no phone service. I’m not one for backing in, but I found myself throwing my arm over my seat and turning around as I put my car in reverse. I didn’t want to be the odd man out. Now with seven cars, the lot was beginning to fill up. 

The Sandys attend Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church, a church that has been in their family for seven generations. Ginger has won history preservation awards for her Facebook page about the historical landmark that the church overlooks, Curia Creek. Photo by Emily Franks.

Canaan picked me up at the front door, his hand on his hip waiting to escort me. “Welcome to my church,” he said. “You’re family now.”

He ushered me through the sanctuary, where the preacher was sharing a Sunday school lesson with the adults. The youth Sunday school class, which was made up of six teenagers and Canaan, was led by Ginger at a round table in the dining room. Canaan and I joined the group’s discussion about the promises God makes in the Bible.

“God keeps his promises because He is perfect,” Ginger said. “If there wasn’t a God, there would be no right or wrong.”

The dining room had a long table draped with a white table cloth as a make-shift buffet, three folding tables with mismatched salt and pepper shakers, and a ping pong table. The back corner of the room still staged the background set-up of the Christmas program.

At 11 a.m., a prayer dismissed everyone at the round table to join the adults in the sanctuary for church. “Few in number but hopefully high in spirits this morning,” Brother Eddie Lee said to the 35-person crowd.

The congregation voiced prayer requests, offered updates, and announced that lunch would be potluck again next Sunday. Canaan sang “He Set Me Free” with Jack Sanders while Ginger played the piano, and Brother Lee delivered a sermon about accepting Jesus Christ as your savior.

Canaan watching his mother Ginger, choral director Jack Sanders, and Brother Lee’s daughter sing a hymn. The congregation sings several songs during their two Sunday services, some of which Canaan helps lead. Photo by Emily Franks.

“When you have genuinely been saved,” he said, “you will learn to love the things that God loves, like the church.”

The Sandys love the church. Even though they spend most Saturday evenings in a different corner of the state, they drive home through the night so they can be in Cave City for church.

“We would give up the Hogs for the Lord,” Ginger said, “but if we stay tough and be diligent, we can do both. We can make those Saturday games and still be back in time for church on Sunday morning.”

Ginger admits that driving back at night can be a struggle. Sometimes they have to pull over to a police station, rest area, McDonalds, or church parking lot for Ginger to take a cat nap.

“Usually if I can have 15 minutes, I’m good to go again,” Ginger said.

A member of the congregation strummed his guitar as he sang “The Little Mountain Church House.” I couldn’t help but watch Ginger while the guitarist sang “looking back now, that little mountain church house has become my life’s cornerstone.”

Ginger’s great-great grandparents started going to church on this hill after they settled here in 1848. Her other set of great-great grandparents joined them 10 years later. Worshiping in a newer building but on the same ground that her ancestors did is important to Ginger. She estimates that she and Canaan are related to about one-third of the congregation.

“People don’t care how much you know; they care how much you love,” Brother Lee said from the podium.

Brother’s Lee’s words lingered in my mind as I made the drive back to Fayetteville — the same drive that the Sandys make nearly every weekend.

“People don’t care how much you know; they care how much you love.”

During hour three, I pulled off the highway for gas and lunch. I couldn’t help but think about how tiring this drive must get. I couldn’t help but try to calculate the yearly miles, gas money, travel time, and every other measurable sacrifice that the Sandys make to support the Hogs.

I couldn’t help but think of the Sandys on the open road in the wee hours of the night — humming through the stillness as the world resets. Canaan reliving the 3rd quarter alley-oop and Ginger planning her Sunday school lesson.

I couldn’t help but think of 1 a.m. with 100 miles to go and the fluid movement between Saturday to Sunday.

When did game day fade into the Lord’s day? Was it midnight? Was it when they reached the end of the winding driveway? Was it when their alarm went off for church?

Somewhere between 10 p.m. in Fayetteville and 2:30 a.m. in Cave City, the line between game day and Holy day becomes blurred.

Maybe Canaan’s devotion to the hogs is lined with Grace — a Grace that is found on the open road in the wee hours of the night when Saturday bleeds into Sunday.

Canaan is a cheerleader and a bridge-builder. He gets his theatrical flair from his mother and his stubbornness from his father. He prays during free throws, wears Razorback gear to church, and loves unconditionally. He was born into a Christian home that loved the Arkansas Razorbacks, but Canaan became the superfan he is in the wee hours on the highway in between.

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