By Jason Burch
La Habra Journal
With the sun setting on a Friday evening in late August, the La Habra football team captains make their way across the gridiron to midfield, marching shoulder to shoulder with their stomachs undoubtedly full of butterflies and adrenaline ratcheted up for the Highlanders forthcoming kickoff of the long-anticipated 2017 season opener.
In just a few minutes, three quarters of the captains will finally get the opportunity to sprint down the field in their first game since last season’s CIF Championship victory.
One Highlander captain, however, won’t crack the field tonight. Senior lineman and long-snapper Diego Sanchez was forced to swap his pads for pressed khakis and a blue polo so that he could tackle a bigger battle off the field—cancer.
Since his diagnosis in March, Sanchez has been fighting every day. But he hasn’t fought it alone. Coining the term “DiegoStrong,” the entire La Habra Highlander community has rallied around Sanchez with overwhelming support.
After struggling with what was originally thought to be a sprained ankle, Sanchez’s mom, Celeste was concerned the injury wasn’t getting any better, so she pressed the doctors to take another look.
After multiple requests, she finally convinced the doctor to order an MRI. What Celeste didn’t realize at the time, was her persistence might just have saved her son’s life.
“The [doctor] told me ‘there might be something shadowing your bone, you might have a tumor,’ so they took a biopsy from a bone in my foot,” Sanchez said. “Afterwards they told me, ‘you have Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, otherwise known as NHL.’”
By the time they discovered it, the cancer had spread to his extremities, as well as his lymph nodes.
“My mom was the one who fought for the doctors to do an MRI,” Sanchez said. “If she wouldn’t have fought for the MRI, it would have pushed me back further and probably spread even more, so I thank God for her everyday.”
The gravity of the news didn’t hit Sanchez the way most would think though. Everything took a backseat to his desire to be back on the field.
“The first thing I thought when I woke up was, man I can’t even play football anymore,” he said.
“I miss the competition, it’s man on man trying to see who has the willpower to win” Sanchez said. “I miss being here at school with all my friends, and I especially miss playing under the lights, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
As it would anybody, the news initially floored the family. Sanchez said that his dad, Diego Sr. was the rock of the family following the initial diagnosis and has stayed incredibly strong for the family throughout the past six months.
“My dad is my biggest supporter, he’s my best friend,” Sanchez said. “I thought he was going to be disappointed, like I was, because I couldn’t play football, but he was the one to keep it together for all of us.”
Another one of Sanchez’s biggest supporters at La Habra has been his longtime friend and All-CIF softball standout, Kira Cauley. After learning of her good friend’s diagnosis, Cauley prompted the entire softball team to wear “DiegoStrong” throughout the rest of the season.
“Me and Diego have been close since the seventh grade, so when we found out, it really hit me hard, so I just wanted to let him know we all had his back,” Cauley said. “He also supports me, he is my biggest fan, during softball season, he would always text me telling me to have a good game.”
“Kira has been my friend for a long time, we used to sit together in all of our classes since junior high,” Sanchez said. “Her and her family have been so supportive.”
December will mark nine straight months of chemotherapy for Sanchez. Just a couple weeks ago his doctors kept him in the hospital for five days straight during his treatment, to monitor his white blood cell count.
That didn’t keep him from the field Friday though. Shortly after being released, Sanchez was once again walking to midfield shoulder to shoulder with his fellow captains under the lights. And he hasn’t missed a Friday this season.
“Everything is going according to plan, according to the last scan there was a decrease so we are going in the right direction,” Sanchez said. “I did have them in my lymph nodes before, but according to the last scan, they are gone.”
Sanchez plans to get back to football as soon as February, to participate in a long-snapper camp that he has attended since his sophomore season.
His oncologist told him that he was on track for February, but he still needs to get the green light from his foot-specialist.
Until he can get back to playing, he will still continue to support the Highlanders every game, and the Highlanders will continue to support Sanchez and show that they are forever “Diego Strong.”