Above: From left, San Gabriel’s Chad Carlson, Tony Vong and Eren Garcia, whose mothers each were diagnosed with breast cancer. The pink wristbands and ribbons show support.
Strong dose of reality
San Gabriel trio deals with mothers’ illnesses
By Miguel A. Melendez
SAN GABRIEL – Football suddenly wasn’t all that was on their minds.
During practice, on the sidelines, on the field, during a play or celebrating a touchdown. It didn’t matter.
Reality had hit.
When Eren Garcia, Tony Vong and Chad Carlson found out their mothers were diagnosed with breast cancer, the news hit them with such brutal force those two words would change their lives forever.
Aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Nearly 180,000 women were diagnosed last year.
The news hit home and much too close for the San Gabriel High School football team to let Carlson, Garcia and Vong cope through it alone.
Friday marks the end of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, but for Carlson, Garcia and Vong it’s become a cause they’ll live their entire lives raising awareness.
Carlson and Vong are sophomores who serve as backup quarterbacks/linebackers for the Matadors. Garcia is a senior wide receiver who has become a fixture in coach Keith Jones’ lineup.
San Gabriel (4-3, 2-0) is a strong contender for the Almont League title and potentially could make another deep CIF-Southern Section playoff run, which could serve as a brief distraction from the harsh reality the mild-mannered trio faces.
Springing into action was Jude Oliva, the Matadors’ offensive coordinator the last four years who learned during fall camp about the players’ situation at home.
He wanted to do something to honor their parents and wanted them to know they were not alone.
At his and his fiancee’s expense, Oliva purchased pink wristbands the players and coaching staff have worn since fall camp.
Oliva also purchased pink ribbon stickers that have been placed on the back of the Matadors’ helmets.
Others joined the cause, too.
The cheerleaders and drill team also are wearing the wristbands, and during last week’s home game against Keppel, the end zones were painted pink. Pink balloons were in the sky and a booth helped raise $400 in donations.
The news seemingly had a ripple effect.
Vong’s mother, Muy, was diagnosed when he was in seventh grade.
Carlson’s mother, Caroline, was diagnosed when he was midway through eighth grade.
Garcia’s mother, Vivian Benavidez, was diagnosed last year. She went through an operation during fall camp this season after suffering a relapse.
Each have gone through common side effects such as losing hair. But it has taken its toll in other aspects of their normal lives as well.
Vong’s mother, who used to work at a factory, no longer can work. His father now works more double shifts and sometimes seven days a week.
“We don’t spend as much time as before,” Vong said.
Carlson’s mother used to work at a spa treatment center in Pasadena, but at one point didn’t work for a year while she went through chemotherapy.
Garcia’s mother is a professor who teaches child development at USC. But she’s currently on permanent disability for a year and a half while she undergoes chemo sessions once every week and a half.
“She’s now more tired all the time,” Garcia said.
Vong and Garcia’s mothers are taking measures to cure the cancer.
Carlson’s mother fortunately beat the cancer, but the family recently went through a scare when their doctor called with fears it may have returned.
After nearly three weeks, they were relieved it was only scar tissue.
For the players, however, it’s been tough focusing on football.
“They need this escape,” Jones said.
“But sometimes during the game or when I play basketball it hits me,” Vong said.
“You see a teammate celebrating a touchdown and see the pink ribbons on the helmets and you can’t help yourself but think about it,” Carlson said.
Major League Baseball does its part by letting players go to the plate with pink bats. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) this month let football officials use pink penalty flags in place of the traditional yellow flags.
“Seeing all this has encouraged us to keep the faith,” Carlson said, “and just play on and support her.”
“They’re overwhelmed with all the support,” Garcia added.
They see all this and suddenly they realize through it all they’re not alone.
And maybe soon, they won’t have to escape through football anymore.
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