AUBURN, Ala. (WSFA) - Cate Sagastegui reminisces on times when Anfernee McLemore would come to speak to her sixth grade class.
"The entire town looks up to them, but especially the kids," she said about the Tigers.
The Auburn basketball players were no strangers to Drake Middle School, but one particular day stood out to Cate. It was the morning after the Tigers dropped back-to-back road games in February.
“I mean I think they got in at like one in the morning and for him to be there at 7 a.m. is just a true testament to his character. It’s a huge deal and really exciting to see someone you look up to, but I think the words that he spoke will have a lasting impact on them,” said Cate.
Anfernee says going to visit the kids was the right thing to do.
"I try to live by the philosophy that I want to be the role model that I wish I had when I was growing up," said the former Auburn forward. "If someone had done that for me when I was a kid, that would have left a lasting impact, and I know if I can provide that for the younger kids, then maybe when they get older, they can keep it going for the other kids and start a generation trend of supporting the younger generation and helping them get through whatever they're going through."
Fast forward to March 4: it was the last time the Class of 2020 would step off the court in the Jungle. The Tigers went on to defeat Tennessee in the final regular season game, but little did they know it would be their last as a collegiate athlete.
“For me personally, it was a roller coaster of emotions,” said McLemore. “We felt like we had a lot of momentum going into our last postseason as a group of seniors. It wasn’t until a week or two weeks after not going to the gym not going to practice that it really emotionally hit me to the point where I was like, yeah, I’m not an Auburn basketball player anymore and that was my last basketball game.”
Knowing how much Anfernee and the rest of the senior class had given to the community, Cate wanted to give them something in return.
"We have all these people who care about them, and the whole Auburn family who wanted to do something nice for them," said Cate. "So I thought, what if people write something? I'm a language arts teacher so I know the power of words."
So she got to work, contacting friends, family members, fans, even old high school and junior college coaches to gather words of thanks and encouragement to the seniors.
"There were hundreds of letters. Some people wrote letters to the whole group, some people chose to write them to individuals,” said Cate.
Even the younger generation pitched in.
"My family really like sports, and I just really love soccer, so I couldn't imagine actually not getting to play anymore," said Caroline Northcutt, one of Cate's students.
The final step? Putting all the letters together, and delivering them to the players. Cate connected with Declan Greene, a local student who worked in graphic design, and decided to reach out for help with the final product.
“Cate approached me and was like, ‘hey would you like to make the cover for these people, I’ve seen your work,’ and I was like, this sounds like an opportunity I can’t turn down,” said Declan. “I saw them holding the book and I was like, this is actually really cool.”
Anfernee had heard rumors about the books being created, but had no idea he would get one delivered to his door.
"It was a lot to take in. It got me really emotional just to see all the letters," he said. "There was letters from my hometown, from a lot of Auburn supporters, and I couldn't be more grateful that they would take the time out, and for Cate to take the time to get all those letters together just for us seniors to have and keep for the rest of our lives."
As big of an impact as it made on the seniors, those feelings were two-fold for those who wrote the letters.
"Obviously I'm biased, but it's just something unique that these student athletes are able to affect the lives of these young people," said Cate.
For Caroline, players like Samir Doughty, who she chose to write a letter to, give her hope for her athletic career in the future, and while their seasons didn't end how anyone had hoped, she says she hopes her letter gave them a little bit of joy.
"I hope [Samir] has a smile when he reads all our letters, and I hope that he knows we appreciate all the hard work he did, and just to let him know that he did a great job," said Caroline. "God has a plan, and this happened for a reason, and thank you. I hope they get on to the big leagues."
Each book held the same message on the first page:
“'Success is not measured by the amount of dollars you make, but the amount of lives you impact. This is a gift from those who you’ve impacted.”