LOS ANGELES, November 17, 2010 - The thing about Steven Contreras being back on the football field, which of course is extraordinary, is that it’s really not.
Eight months to the day after doctors amputated the lower part of his left leg, Steven, who is a 16-year-old high school junior, got back in for about a dozen plays in the game that clinched the league championship. Last week, even though that knee was sore, he played again as his school, Rolling Hills Prep, moved to 8-1.
Five or six or 10 years from now, when Steven is bigger and stronger, maybe he competes for the United States in the Paralympic Games. Or maybe not.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters is the change the Paralympic movement has wrought. That change has come incrementally and surely has yet to be fully realized — there being some 21 million people in the United States with a physical disability.
The years have nevertheless ushered in that change. And it is powerful and undeniable. It is emphatic and it is real. It does nothing less than give young people like Steven hope.
“That,” he said of the Paralympics, “is something I would definitely love to do.”
Yes, Steven has lost part of a leg. No, he won’t ever again be the same. But he can — he will — still be “normal,” able to live his life to the fullest, just like the able-bodied kids around him — who, and this is a key part of the change, too, treat him “normally.”
That is the power of the Paralympics. It makes it all — whatever it is, even something as definitively American as football, a sport that isn’t even part of the Paralympic scene — so much more “normal.”
“It has been really inspiring,” sophomore Kevin Kole, Rolling Hills Prep’s punter and place-kicker, said of Steven’s determination to get back into uniform, a testament to Steven’s own mental fortitude, Steven’s faith and the love and support of his parents, coaches, teammates and others.
The way that inspiration manifested itself, and the way Kevin describes it, is the telling part: “He was always trying, always at practice every day. But his leg wasn’t ready,” by which Kevin meant both Steven’s left leg and one or another of the prostheses Steven would be trying.
“He kept getting new legs,” Kevin said. “They kept breaking because he kept jumping and running. This one now, it works — but we had to wrap it in all this foam.”
Just a matter-of-fact recitation about how to solve what is, well, an equipment issue.
Because once that was solved, of course Steven would be playing — right?
Rolling Hills Prep is an independent co-educational secular school for grades six through 12 in San Pedro, Calif., about a half-hour south of downtown Los Angeles on the eastern slope of the Palos Verdes peninsula.
It was during football season last year, Steven’s sophomore year, that his left ankle started bothering him.
He couldn’t figure it out. He would just fall, for seemingly no reason. One time, he recalled, he fell after he thought he’d gotten hit. No, someone said — you just fell. “I said, you’ve got to have this looked at,” the football coach, Frank Frisina, recalled.
Steven’s mom, Valerie, 46, is a longshoreman. His dad, Steve, 47, is a Los Angeles County welding foreman. They took him to one of those urgent-care facilities to check out the ankle. It’s not broken, they were told there, but you really have to see an orthopedic specialist, and right away.
The day before Thanksgiving, the specialists told Steve and Val that their son had a bone tumor, a kind of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, in his left ankle.
Last Dec. 5, Steven started chemotherapy.
Over the next four months, he became very good friends with a little boy, Nathaniel Robert Arteaga, not yet even in kindergarten, who was also undergoing chemo. “If this little boy is doing it, we can do it — we can beat it,” Steven would tell his mom.
For those months, Steven and his little buddy carried each other through the routine of chemo. For all that time, Steven wasn’t in significant pain. He could get up and around. He could dance.
But the cancer wouldn’t go away. The fear was it would spread.
On March 5, doctors amputated Steven’s left leg, about where the calf muscle ends.
“The only time he was down was right after the surgery,” Val said. “They didn’t have his meds quite right. He looked down and said, ‘Oh, it’s really gone.’ “
Steven remembers that. But he also describes it like this: “That was the turning point for me. Okay, it’s gone. They need to do this to save my life and I’m okay with it.”
How quickly, he wanted to know, could he play ball again? “That was my main goal,” he said. “To get back on the football field with my brothers.”
Understand that Rolling Hills Prep is not one of those mammoth California pubic high schools that produce reams of Division I scholarship athletes. In all, about 235 kids attend all seven grades. The school plays eight-man football. About two dozen boys are on the team.
This is Frisina’s sixth year as head coach. When he started, he brought with him a saying: “Hold the rope.” He meant to teach the boys that they were in it, football and life itself, together: “If you’re falling off a cliff, you’re dangling off a cliff, who’s going to hold that rope for you? Your teammates.”
After Steven’s diagnosis, with the okay of teammates and alumni, they took the original rope and put it in a frame and gave it to him. The team also held a car wash and some other events to start a fund for the upgraded and expensive prosthetic Steven wants, made by the same company that makes the device sprinter Oscar Pistorius runs on.
"He didn’t want to let anyone down,” his mother said. “”His coaches, his friends, his parents — he knew everybody was watching. I think he just wanted to prove to himself, too — he saw other amputees do it, and he felt that if they could do it he could do it.
“I don’t know,” she said, marveling at her son’s willpower. “He’s so young. The thought of losing his life at such a young age — he had so many hopes and dreams yet to accomplish. The thought of not reaching those goals — he wasn’t going to stand for that.”
“He said, ‘Coach, as soon as I get the stent out of my chest, I can play — they’re going to clear me,’ ” Frisina recalled. “I said, ‘Steven, as long as you get cleared by the doctor and the parents, we’ll get you back in shape and make sure you put in the time and if it’s okay for you to play — you’ve got it.’ “
Learning to walk again with a prosthetic device can take weeks. “I only used crutches that first day,” Steven said. “I was determined I was going to be playing football this season. Within three weeks to a month, I was walking without a limp.”
Frisina said, “You talk about there being heroes — this kid has faced everything head-on. But this kid doesn’t see that. He says there are other people out there who are stronger. I tell you, if there are, I haven’t met them.”
A couple weeks ago, Steven brought Frisina a doctor’s note. It said he was cleared to play.
In eight-man ball, there’s a 45-point mercy rule. In its final regular-season game, against an L.A. school called Ribet Academy, Rolling Hills Prep roared out to a big first-quarter lead. After that, in came Steven, the prosthetic wrapped up in all that foam.
“You could tell the buzz along the bleachers,” Frisina said. “He was fired up.”
Steven played a few plays, then came out. He came right over to Frisina.
“He said, ‘Can I go back in?’
“I said, ‘You can go back in but let’s do this right.’ “
After the game, a 47-0 Rolling Hills Prep Huskies victory, Steven was sporting a big bruise on his right arm. Pretty normal.
This past weekend, in the Huskies’ first-round playoff game, Steven got in for about a half-dozen plays in the Huskies’ 47-14 defeat of Nuview Bridge, from Nuevo, Calif., near Riverside.
Maybe Rolling Hills Prep gets by Windward, another L.A. school, this week. Maybe not.
Does it really matter?
Val didn’t even get to see her son play last weekend. She was manning the snack shack, cooking burgers and hot dogs. “It felt like things were normal,” she said.
She also said, “It’s happening so fast. I can’t believe he’s pushing himself to not just get back to normal but pushing himself to help other people. I’m, like, maybe you shouldn’t be doing all this. Let’s breathe a little. Let’s make sure your health is good.”
“He has a lot of people praying for him. He has a lot of support. I just told him,” and here she laughed because she knew that what she would say next was exactly what you’d expect, so very normal, “make sure your grades stay good.”
*This article appeared as the very first entry on Olympic specialist Alan Abrahamson's new website www.3wiresports.com. An AIPS member, award-winning Abrahamson, who has written for the Los Angeles Times, and reported for NBC and Universal Sports has co-written two books with US swim sensation Michael Phelps and is a member of the IOC Press Commission.