June 29, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Diego Sanchez clutches a copy of a OC Varsity from Dec. 5, 2015. He and his La Habra High football teammates are on the cover raising helmets and fists to the sky, celebrating their 39-36 CIF Championship victory over San Clemente.
Surrounded by his brothers, Sanchez’ smile stretches wide as the goal post.
“That was one of the best nights of my entire life,” Sanchez said, as his championship ring glimmered in the light of his La Habra home.
Sanchez, now a senior, said he would give anything to blend into the ink on the page. To return to the huddle. To return to life as he knew it.
He is battling lymphoma. The tumor, which started in his foot, has spread throughout his body. He is three months into chemotherapy, with an estimated two years to go.
The La Habra community is rallying behind him, especially on social media with the hashtag #DiegoStrong.
“He’s one of the toughest guys,” Highlanders coach Frank Mazzotta said. “That’s why when he got diagnosed with cancer, I knew, there’s a guy that will fight.”
Sanchez was first diagnosed with a sprained ankle.
He felt pain in his foot mid-way through last season. He couldn’t sleep and could barely walk the school hallways. “The pain was ridiculous,” he said.
But he didn’t complain. He played with a limp.
“Always as a football player, you play through injuries. You tough it out,” Sanchez said. “That’s part of the sport.”
He iced and taped his foot. He tried acupuncture and Epsom salts. He sawa chiropractor. But his foot was not healing.
Celeste Sanchez sensed something was wrong. She can count the number of ailments her son has had on one hand.
“This kid never got sick,” she said.
When the Sanchez family finally learned their 17-year-old had cancer, they were shocked.
They still are.
“I was like, ‘No, we’re here for a sprained ankle. It’s torn, right? It’s not cancer. There’s no way,’” said Diego Sr., Sanchez’ father. “And then you sit there and the doctors stare at you. I think they want you to process it, but there’s too many emotions hitting you.”
It was a Friday when Sanchez woke up from his biopsy, unaware of the diagnosis. He remembered Mazzotta’s words: “Get that taken care of. Get back to practice on Monday.”
Minutes later, Sanchez learned he would not be back on Monday.
“Diego. You have cancer,” the doctor told him. “Now we’re going to fight.”
Football did not come easy to Sanchez. He has had to earn every minute of playing time with the Highlanders, spending his first season on the freshman team, his second on junior varsity and his third on varsity.
Playing center, Sanchez stands 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds (before the diagnosis). Most of his competitors are 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. Sanchez wouldn’t have it any other way; it makes him play scrappier, smarter.
“He’s all fight,” running back Eli Anderson said. “He doesn’t back down.”
“He has a really big heart,” middle linebacker Camron Rivas said.
“In practice, he would go against all the big guys. He’d never quit,” running back Madison Wheeler said. “He’d always go harder, go harder, go harder.”
Cancer was a fight Sanchez never expected. He has lost much of his body mass and his hair has thinned.
He has chemotherapy four days a week, Tuesday through Friday. Sometimes he returns sick. Other times, very tired. He tries to mask his pain from his family, coaches and teammates. When doctors ask him how he’s doing, he assures them he’s fine.
“It’s tough because I’m taught, always through football, ‘don’t show weakness,’ and now, I kind of have to show weakness,” Sanchez said.
“I try not to think that I have cancer. I try not to constantly remind myself, ‘Hey I have this disease that could possibly be life-threatening.’”
One day after chemotherapy in early June, he crawled to the dinner table (he often does when he tires of hopping around on his crutches). Suddenly he motioned to his father as if he was choking. Then he couldn’t move or talk. “His face looked like it was melting,” Diego Sanchez Sr. said.
Rushed to the hospital, Sanchez was having neurotoxicity, a rare side effect from the chemotherapy.
The next few days, he managed a word or two. He hardly moved, except to squeeze his parents’ hands. A week later, he returned to his normal state.
Sanchez wears a Make a Wish bracelet that reminds him to stay balanced through his highs and lows. It has a black dot with sand from the Dead Sea (representing the lowest point); and a white dot filled with water from Mount Everest (the highest point).
He said he finds strength from the support of his coaches and teammates, who visited him in the hospital and often drop by his house.
“They helped me accept I had cancer,” Sanchez said. “Not only from my football team, but from my school, the support was enormous.”
Sanchez has inspired his teammates. His jersey hangs in La Habra’s weight room, above the bell players ring when they achieve repetitions at maximum weight.
Wide receiver Isaac Soto said he prays for Sanchez every night and often thinks of him during practice.
“As he’s fighting, I just think about it like, ‘I gotta come out here every day and do what he would do,’” Soto said. “I wake up every morning and know that he’s fighting, he’s strong, so why not me? Why can’t I be strong?”
There’s reason to smile in the Sanchez household on a Monday in mid-June. A few days earlier, Sanchez took his first steps in four months.
“We were so excited,” Diego Sanchez Sr. said. “That was huge.”
The tumor is receeding and the bone is healing. Doctors have allowed Sanchez to put part of his weight on that foot.
“Diego’s not a baby-step kind of guy, though,” his father said.
Sanchez smiles. He wants to run. He aims to suit up for La Habra’s first game in three months.
He said he motivates himself by thinking of the Highlanders’ grueling practices: two-a-days in the dead heat. He thinks of his team’s toughest games against Mission Viejo and Los Alamitos, as his other bracelet reads: “WBTNP: We bow to no program.”
He thinks of the words of a close friend: You’ve always been the center. You’ve always gone against really big nose tackles. Imagine that cancer is just another nose tackle that you gotta go up against.
“This is the biggest challenge he’ll ever go through in his life,” said defensive line coach Doug Creighton. “That’s what we try to instill in our boys: Never quit.”