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‘Our gentle giant’: Elk Grove rallies behind beloved teacher and coach who is hospitalized

The big man on campus has not been on campus in more than 40 days.

The absence of James Pale has left a considerable void at Elk Grove High School and throughout the regional prep sports scene.

A beloved football coach, activities director and teacher at Elk Grove for seven years, and 18 before that at Burbank High School, Pale has been hospitalized since April 9 to treat a blood clot that resulted in a loss of kidney function. He has undergone 12 surgeries in an effort to “control the bleeding in the stomach and intestines,” according to a GoFundMe account for Pale. Nearly $40,000 had been raised entering the weekend with a goal of $50,000 to help the family offset medical bills not covered by insurance and loss of income.

A mountain of a man at 6-foot-5, Pale suffered from pain shooting in his leg on April 9, which was diagnosed as a blood clot. Doctors during surgery discovered Pale had a lower aorta tear, leading to a loss of blood to his left kidney. Pale has been able to communicate by squeezing the hands of family, including wife Mele, son Simi and daughter Misi.

Those who know Pale say he is in their hearts and minds in what would normally be a fast-forward period of time for a man of many hats. Springtime is a busy time for any activities director, including the Senior Ball and graduation ceremonies, which will take place Wednesday at Golden 1 Center.

Simi, a three-time Bee All-Metro football lineman who will head to Stanford this fall on a football scholarship, is a senior at Elk Grove. He will walk across the stage in a cap and gown with his father there only in spirit. Misi, also a superb student-athlete on campus, is a junior at Elk Grove. Along with their mother, Mele, this is a tight-knit group. Family has kept a virtual 24-hour watch over Pale.

“James is the No. 1 person on campus — everyone loves him,” said Amanda Buck, Elk Grove’s varsity softball coach and senior class advisor. “We all miss him. We can’t wait to have him back.”

Elk Grove head football coach John Heffernan has known Pale since they first met as football teammates at the College of San Mateo in 1992, two Bay Area residents drawn to each other as men who used football as a vehicle for education. They knew even then that they wanted to mentor young football players as teachers and coaches. They quickly became best friends, coaching championship teams at Burbank for 18 years and doubling their impact as on-campus teachers before their move to Elk Grove seven years ago.

The coaches also share the same birthday. Heffernan and Pale will turn 51 on May 29.

“We just connected from the start,” said Heffernan, also Elk Grove’s athletic director. “I love that man. He’s my brother. It’s been so hard on all of us. When he squeezes our hands, we’re 100% encouraged. Doctors are happy about that. We’re hopeful.”

An emotional Heffernan paused and added: “I know James. I know how much people love him. I know what he means to all of us. It was scary when he went in, really scary, obviously. But he’s a fighter, a battler. I pray. I pray every day. He’s got so much more to give.”

If there’s one word to describe Pale, it would be cool. He never loses his cool, for one thing. He has an “aura of it” and being smooth, said longtime Elk Grove physical education teacher and coach Jeff Carlson. His friends say Pale has the gift to rally and unite students, be it football players or those in the Polynesian Club he helped create and nurture.

During home basketball games, Pale could be found tucked in the corner, sitting and surrounded by stereo equipment as a DJ of sorts, playing songs before the game and during a stoppage of play. In this setting, Pale often wore sunglasses, and he was a magnet to those who wanted to come up to say hello.

“James brings life and joy to our campus,” Carlson said. “It’s his spirit. We definitely miss him. James is a gentle giant. He has such a presence about him, and he’s so good and patient with students. Just a great, great guy.”

First-year Elk Grove principal Rudy Ortega called Pale “a special, special man.” He first met Pale at a teacher’s conference.

“It didn’t take long for me to see how amazing he was and why kids like him so much,” Ortega said. “A humble man, our gentle giant. James wouldn’t want people talking about him like this, wouldn’t want any of this attention. I talk to the ASB kids he’s worked with and they’re holding it together. They miss him. We’ll miss him at graduation because he’d be front and center.”