Breast cancer and a coach’s care help make Christmas

By Todd Franko

Elliott Giles has seen a lot of great football plays on the field for Youngstown State University and for his fledgling youth flag league.

Christmas night, he saw a football miracle.

Any sport creates great moments amid the action — from youth games to pro contests.

But it’s often outside the competitive arena where the human element within sports transcends the game and provides a chance to build a bridge.

Poland’s John Diaz had that chance. He’s a coach in Giles’ three-year-old Youngstown Flag Football Association.

It’s a unique league in that it’s not town-based. Kids age 5 to 12 come from three counties to play in the league, which conducts 10-week seasons in the spring and the fall. Games are played outside Boardman High School, and from the country roads of Columbiana County to the polished suburbs of Poland to the scarred streets of Youngstown, they come.

From those streets came a single mom and her youngest son. Living on the city’s South Side, she’d built a wall around her three sons to protect them.

“They’ve seen more than they should,” she said Christmas night as she watched across Diaz’s Poland living room as her boys were just being boys with five other kids.

But her voice and stare faded to a darkness that creeps along hardened urban streets that no mother wants for her boys.

She grew up on the South Side. Life for her and five siblings was never easy. With uneasy ease, she recalls the worst, such as the day her grandmother was killed by her uncle.

“Fourteen stab wounds,” she said as if she memorized every one.

Countering this hard life was her mom’s drive and perseverance.

“We were always taught to press on and to press on,” she said, her voice instantly taking on that of a motivational speaker. “Fake it till you make it, no matter how painful your reality. Faking it was our only chance out.”

She smiles, remembering her mom on her bed with $500, crafting a business plan for a trading-card store. With Mom as inspiration, daughter built a small massotherapy business several years ago.

She and her sons have lived differently — trying to rise above the rot. She said doing so has made them targets in their neighborhood.

Vandalism is no stranger. Her oldest was robbed in November while walking to a job interview. Utilities have been turned off and on too many times to count.

The youngest son’s dad is dead; the older sons’ dad is not in their lives.

But whatever they didn’t have, they always had Mom’s protective wall.

Behind it they lived, and it created three fine boys.

The oldest is the talker and will talk and laugh with anyone — from younger kids to older adults. The middle son is the gifted athlete. And in the youngest, the two older boys’ strengths come together.

“He’s the godsend,” she said of the youngest.

They struggled, but got by, until a challenge tougher than the streets faced them.

It was not a stabbing or a fight or a mugging.

It was a lump.

In 2008, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She began immediate chemo and radiation treatments.

Weakened physically, Mom’s wall started to crumble to where even getting her youngest to flag football was not possible.

“Cancer stripped me,” she said. “But it opened me up because I was too weak to fight off the love of others.”

Love came from the youngest son’s flag-football team coached by John, who made sure the youngest was picked up for every football event.

On the field, the youngest is special and gifted. In the back seat of Coach John’s truck with his son, Julian, he was even brighter.

“He’s such a fun kid,” John said. But amid the fun, the realities of two worlds were clear.

“They were in back, and I had my tunes playing, but I could hear some words, so I turned down the radio some, then I turned it down some more,” John said.

And out came childhood tales that were a planet away from Julian’s experiences.

This cousin was dead; this friend got shot; Mom has cancer.

A bridge was built; a gap closed.

“The boys needed a dad,” Mom said. “And John stepped in as a friend. He taught me how to trust again — especially with my baby.”

She ended chemo in February and radiation in May. Her port was removed in September, and she shows the scar like a trophy.

But life is still not completely back on track, and it was about to take away Christmas.

Coach John and his wife, Melanie, found out. He sent out an e-mail asking for help in making a Christmas happen for one family. That e-mail got around to others. Over the course of a week, John and Mel’s Poland dining room became a measure of what a difference one person could make.

And Christmas night, there they were together for a Christmas party, including Mom and her boys. Mom had known Coach John was going to do something for the boys.

What she walked into brought her to stunned silence.

After 30 minutes of gift-opening for the four, in the arms of Coach John’s mother, Patty Zamudio, Mom was brought to shivering tears.

Smiles, tears and worlds collided.

Off to the side stood Coach John and Elliott.

While Elliott has a lot of hope for his football league (it’s grown from 80 players to 600 in three years), he has more hope for the lives that will be connected.

In front of him Christmas night, it was playing out.

“The league is more than just football for us,” Elliott said.

The gifts that filled a room will not last a lifetime. Some will last just weeks; some a few years.

But the moment will last a lifetime. It’s a lifetime that Mom presses on for.

She has big dreams for her boys, and they’ve made it this far.

But her dreams get interrupted by the fears of the streets.

Answering her biggest fear for her boys, the dark, endless stare returns.

“Death ...,” she said, is her biggest fear for them.

“So I pray a lot.”

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