Conquered Challenge has dad walking on sunshine

The cool thing about local high schools starting to hold college signing ceremonies for their athletes a few years ago is, believe it or not, the parents.

It is always fun to see the pride in the eyes of mom and dad as their son or daughter signs to take his or her talents to the next level.

The athletes are usually nervous as friends, family, teammates, coaches and media members gather around for the big day. Every time, the parents are walking on sunshine, as they should be. They get to see the payoff in all those years of hard work and dedication.

My daughter is nowhere near one of those signing ceremonies. Her one high school sport is track, and her career-best throw in the shot put is 24 feet, 8 inches. In a recent meet, you had to throw 25 feet for the event workers to even bother wasting their time with a measurement.

Yet none of the parents have a step on me when it comes to being proud of my high school senior. That is because last week my daughter, Delaney, was officially informed that she is a recipient of the 2022 Mariah’s Challenge Scholarship.

Mariah’s Challenge has been special to me and my little girl for longer than she can remember. It helped us make a pact that changed my life for the better, and she clearly took notice.

The deal, ironically enough, came at the Deluxe Sports Bar. Laney, as we call her, was 4 and wise beyond her years. I was 33 going on 19.

Like I did often on Fridays, I took Laney to lunch at the Deluxe because we both loved the steak fingers at the bar/restaurant that has since been torn down.

This time, I was looking over the odds as we waited for our food. Our table sat about 15 feet away from a small-time bookie who was waiting for me to turn in my $20 parlay ticket for the weekend’s college and pro football games.

Laney looked at a Bud Light sign on the wall and said, “Eww, beer. That’s gross.”

“Yeah,” I said as I looked up from the list of games and then back down again. “I don’t want you to ever drink that stuff.”

“Well,” she shot back, “I don’t want you to drink it anymore, either.”

“OK,” I said. “It’s a deal.”

Then we shook on it.

Fourteen and a half years later, I am happy to say that I held up my end of the bargain. I have not touched a drop of alcohol since.

Not a single sip.

At the time, I was already leaning toward giving up drinking anyway. The talk with Laney clinched it.

Less than a week earlier, I wrote about Montana Tech’s 28-21 win over Montana Western for The Montana Standard. The great game was the highlight of our busy, seven-page sports section.

A little after midnight on Oct. 28, 2007, I walked out the front door of the Standard and headed down to Maloney’s for a few beers to unwind after that long shift.

A co-worker later told me the call came over the scanner seconds after I walked out of the newsroom. Mariah McCarthy, Valerie Kilmer and Kaitlyn Okrush, three 14-year-old Butte girls, were run over by an underage drunk driver on Blacktail Lane.

As Valerie and Kaitlyn fought for their lives at St. James Healthcare and Mariah was being prepped for her flight to Missoula, where she tragically passed away, I was laughing with some friends over some beers at my favorite bar.

Then I drove home, most likely at least a little bit over the legal limit.

Word of the tragedy was shocking the next morning as I sat down to watch the Bears-Vikings game with my dad. I was floored a little bit later when my mom broke the news that it was my good friend Leo McCarthy’s daughter who died.

Laney went to her grandparents’ house with me as I watched the game. She went everywhere with me in those days, even though she never cared about the games.

Each and every time she walked by, I grabbed her and squeezed her. I would kiss her on the head and tell her that I love her to the point that she would push out of my arms.

I felt so bad for my friend, and the thought of the same thing happening to my daughter absolutely terrified me.

Suddenly, all those great moments — the first step, the first words, the first smile, the first day of school — were ruined. In an instant, they became bittersweet reminders of what was lost and what will never be again.

That night I looked in the mirror and shuddered at the thought that I was an active participant in our society’s cavalier attitude toward drinking and driving. That shared attitude was an accomplice to Mariah’s death.

While I never considered myself to have a drinking problem, it was clear that I had a problem when I drank. One was too many and 12 was not enough.

I had to stop. I had to be part of the solution to a problem that had gone on way too long.

That Thursday, my wife and I went to St. Ann’s Church and saw Leo deliver the most beautiful and courageous eulogy I have ever witnessed.

While he did not realize the magnitude of his words at the time, Leo told Mariah’s friends that if they promised to never drink while they were under age, he would have money for them for college.

The next day, Laney and I went to the Deluxe and became two of the first people to accept Mariah’s Challenge, which was officially launched early the next year.

Two years to the day after Leo’s eulogy, I was one of 33 members of a Mariah’s Challenge team that ran the New York City Marathon to raise money for the scholarship.

I always knew that every painful step was worth it, but now it means so much more.

Now, my little girl is one of 21 in the latest class of Mariah’s Messengers, and I have been walking on sunshine since she told me the news.

I know the Challenge was not easy for her. I know she lost friends because she held up her end of our bargain.

Later this month, she will join the other 21 heroes as they accept their scholarships. Hero is an appropriate title for each and every one of them, too. You don’t have to score a touchdown to be one of those.

So, let’s hear it for Sophie Archibald, Laini Arntson, Kaitlyn Becker, Taylor Burke and Max Demarais.

Stand up and take a bow Madison Faulkner, Eric Hart, Casey Kautzman, James Kinsey, MaKinzie Mason, Mia McCarthy and Kennadie McMahon.

A round of applause for Jak Mortensen, Evan Pentecost, Joe Phillip, George Riojas, Taylor St. Pierre, Mya Stenson, Mariya Tregidga and Liamm Villasenor.

Let’s hear it for their parents, too.

You 21 young men and women are brave. You are strong. You are my heroes.

Thank you for making sure that the legacy of young Mariah McCarthy will live on and on.

In the fall, my daughter will be off to the University of Montana to study criminology. I have no doubt she has what it takes to make it. Our deal tells me that. She is still wise beyond her years.

There will be no signing ceremony, but I could not be prouder than if she was heading to Missoula to play quarterback for the Grizzlies.

— Bill Foley, who probably can’t throw the shot put 24 feet, 8 inches, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on Email him at Follow him at