High School Senior Running Back with Cancer Keeps His Focus on Football

Tully Corcoran@@tullycorcoranSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 18, 2017

Courtesy Ricky Perez
Courtesy Ricky PerezRicky Perez is coming off an honorable mention All-State season.

Team captain Ricky Perez sends a text from his hospital room in Tucson, Arizona, where doctors are inconveniencing him with chemotherapy.

"I'm actually having treatment at this exact moment," he writes, "but I can talk once we're done."

Perez was diagnosed in May with testicular cancer, and he is a senior running back for Rio Rico High, a school of 1,300 kids about an hour south of Tucson, near the Mexican border.

Not "was going to be" a senior running back. Is a senior running back.

Perez has been getting chemotherapy all summer and has lost almost 20 pounds, but he hasn't stopped going to football practice. On Wednesday, he was finishing the third of four chemo treatments, after which he intends to line up in the backfield once again. The Hawks' season opens Friday, and Perez plans to be back on the field when they play Rincon University High on September 15.

"I'm pretty sure once I get on that field I'm going to start crying," he said. "Just crying with joy."

Without football, life is dull and difficult to accept for Perez. He looked at a cancer diagnosis the same as a separated shoulder—a setback, yeah, but only for a little while.

Perez has continued to participate in team practices: "When I show up, they go 100 percent."
Perez has continued to participate in team practices: "When I show up, they go 100 percent."Courtesy Ricky Perez

"My No. 1 concern when they diagnosed me was, when could I play football?" he said. "I wasn't really concerned with the medical part of it.

"That's what I ask the doctor every time I go in: 'When can I go back and play?'"

Perez has three older brothers who played football. He looked up to them, and as soon as they'd let him, at age four, he began playing football.

"They've always helped me to be a good citizen, just the basic stuff for you to be successful in life," he said. "I've kind of built myself around them."

What he built was a player Rio Rico coach Zach Davila called "the best football player, physically and mentally, that I've had the pleasure of coaching."

Perez was an honorable mention All-State selection in 2016. He's one of those kids who is always chosen team captain, and has a 3.8 GPA. He was 175 pounds and could bench 315.

Northern Arizona and San Diego were recruiting him, waiting to see how he'd perform as a senior getting 20-30 carries a night in Davila's run-heavy single-wing offense.

"I felt he was going to have a really great season and earn that scholarship offer to play football," Davila said.

Perez says he feels it's important to lead by example, and he has never been so optimistic about the Rio Rico football team, which is well-known in Arizona for having once lost 52 games in a row. After some discord the past couple of years, the team is finally a family, he says. Ricky does not want to let his brothers down.

"I can practically do anything except have physical contact with any of my teammates. I go through every drill, I condition with them, I do everything to my potential," he said. "Obviously right now I'm not going to feel the tip-top shape that I used to feel, but I'm putting it all out there to show my teammates that regardless of what situation they're in, they can pull it out. With all that dedication and that will to want to be out there and play the best sport in the world, that's how I see it."

Ricky's mom, Blanca, goes to all the games. She'll be worried when her son takes the field again, but she's not about to deprive him of it.

"It's tough to see your kid getting hit like that," she said. "But he loves it. He loves that adrenaline running through his body."

Perez has one chemo treatment to go before he is cleared for full contact.
Perez has one chemo treatment to go before he is cleared for full contact.Courtesy Ricky Perez

It has been too long for Ricky's patience since he got to feel that. A week is too long, and it's been months. The main thing running through Ricky's body these days is poison, in just the right dose. It really takes the strength out of him. He won't deny that. The work his doctor allows him to do leaves him winded and weak after a few reps.

But that's his only complaint. He only hurts when he's not on the field.

"I'm not in pain," he said. "Why would I be in pain playing football?"

It's a lousy feeling, being all weak and sidelined like he is, but he thinks it's good for the team to see him at practice, working.

"When I don't go, it's not like they slack off, it's just a different tempo they're in," he said. "They want to show me the effort they're putting in. Obviously, a lot of people would not want to be at practice. They'd want to be someplace else. But when I show up, they go 100 percent.

"They see me out there working, and if they're not working, it's just kind of like, 'Oh, how's he doing it, and I'm perfectly fine, I have perfect health—and I'm not doing it?'"

Coach Davila thinks it's working.

"I think his teammates see how much he cares about football, and more importantly how much he cares about his teammates," Davila said. "When he comes to practice, he'll coach everybody. He'll coach the linemen, coach the quarterbacks; he's doing everything possible to make sure this team doesn't skip a beat."

It is not uncommon for athletes to continue working out while they're undergoing cancer treatment. Most of the time, they have the same complaints Perez does about fatigue and weight loss. They're just trying to maintain as much of their athletic ability as they can so that when the chemo is over, the climb back into playing shape isn't so steep.

Still, it's a process that can take months. Even a year down the road, some say they still don't feel quite the same.

Perez isn't interested in waiting that long to find out. He's a senior, and it's the fall, and it's time to play football, and that's all there is to it.

"I started since my freshman year," he said. "That's what affects me the most right now. I've never been on the sidelines. I get kinda anxious watching it. I want to do so many things, but I'm sidelined there."

He's not sure what to expect from his body on that night. Davila says they're going to ease him back in, see what he can handle. Ricky is ready for that, but he's not about to let anybody down.

"I'm not a superhuman," he said. "I'm not going to go out there and be like, 'Oh, I'm the same person.' But the fact I have been playing for so many years, all the training, all the weight training, that doesn't go away in three months."

One more round of chemo, three weeks' rest, and it's game time again for captain Ricky Perez.

"I'll be ready," he said.