Tuesday, November 23, 2010

California teen whose leg was amputated for cancer returns to football team

From The Daily Breeze in Torrence, Calif.:

The what-ifs stare Steven Contreras (pictured) in the face, bury themselves in his soul and live with him constantly.

"If I wouldn't have been playing football, if I wouldn't have sprained my ankle, if I wouldn't have been in tremendous pain ..."

Almost a year ago, Contreras was struggling through his sophomore football season at Rolling Hills Preparatory School. Often injured, he'd trip unexpectedly during drills, his left ankle giving way for seemingly no reason.

After the season, he finally relented and went to an urgent care clinic on the day after Thanksgiving. The doctor took one look at the X-ray, saw the tumor wrapped around his foot and sent him to an orthopedist.

The orthopedic surgeon promptly sent Contreras to Dr. Jeffrey Eckardt, who would guide Contreras through his ordeal with bone cancer.

What may sound like an ordeal for most is merely life for Contreras, an otherwise normal football player who just happens to have no left leg below his knee. The amputation was necessary when a round of chemotherapy couldn't tackle the cancer that would likely have spread quickly.

Two weeks ago, it was Contreras doing the tackling as Rolling Hills Prep played the final regular season game of his junior year. Not only is he alive, he is coaxing his prosthesis through drills in practice and participating in varsity games for the Huskies.

"It's awesome," Contreras said, "just to know that it hasn't even been a year from all my treatment and amputation and I'm back on the field, back to doing what I love to do. It's an indescribable feeling."

A standout athlete in football and baseball, a well-liked kid and a top-notch student, Contreras knows he almost lost it all.

"I still remember the first day he called me and told me what was going on," close friend and teammate Jonathan Castro said. "I've just seen him go through the whole thing and I never saw him get down on himself, or like, have a

Before the game, Contreras tapes foam around his prosthetic leg to make it safe on the field. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)negative attitude about anything.
"So to see him getting out on the field so quick was kind of inspiring."

Castro spoke for many around Contreras when he confronted the thought of what was happening to him.

"All the time. I don't know how I'd be able to handle it," Castro said. "Honestly, I don't know if I could take it the way he did, knowing that I'd have to live with something like that."

Contreras grew up in Wilmington and still lives there, always an athlete and always conscious of his studies and his Christian faith.

Most of his friends went on to Banning High, but his parents opted to send him to Rolling Hills Prep.

Suddenly, in the middle of his sophomore year, the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood became home.

He lost half his leg, but never lost what was most important.

"I learned that my friends are really important to me and that I wouldn't be able to do anything without the support of my family," Contreas said. "It's one of the biggest things. Without them you don't know who you are. Sometimes you lose faith.

"It's hard to be in that hospital for nine months to keep that spirit up, that I'll get through this, nothing's going to hold me back. And then to know that I only have one and a half legs and I don't have another leg to stand on, it's pretty hard."

The secret?

"I just embraced it," he said. "It's one of the quotes me and my friends have always used since I can remember, `Just embrace it,' and that's what I did and I was OK with the whole situation. I knew that God had me in his hands and he was going to guide me my whole life."

But it was Contreras who was going to have to figure out how to walk, let alone get on a football field again. Oh, and clear the base paths in the spring because baseball awaits, too.

But doesn't football present some dilemmas for someone with a prosthesis? Rolling Hills Prep coach Frank Frisina was acutely aware of that.

"There was nowhere for me to go to get coaching points on a player playing with a prosthetic," Frisina said. "We had it cleared with the CIF months ago. They said to wrap it like any other cast. Once it was wrapped, we told the officials.

"And we let the other team know in case the leg fell off or something."

While that may be a natural concern, that is the furthest thing from Contreras' mind.

His metal leg is fairly high tech. Just above the shoe, there is a pump that works automatically to suction air out to tighten the attachment to the upper portion of the leg.

When the pump is working, it gives off a static electricity-like sound, which makes for a pretty good conversation piece in the huddle.

Yet he still has to break the huddle, get up to the line and play football.

"Actually, I'm still not 100 percent used to my prosthesis and I haven't done one day of physical therapy," Contreras said. "It was a lot of determination to do it myself.

"It's a lot of work, it's a full workout, even to today. When I walk I still sweat, it's still hard. ... I'm one of the quickest that my surgeon has ever seen walk without a limp, and it's a pretty great thing I've done that just with determination, with the help of my friends saying that I can do it, and that I'll be back on the field."

But he's had to adapt to changes.

"Getting off (at the line of scrimmage), I have to really aid my left leg. I push off with my right leg, I lead with it. Whatever my left leg can't keep up with, my right leg has to compensate."

And the left leg? Sometimes, not even Contreras knows.

"I can get pushed on my right side and try to come back, but maybe this leg will be somewhere else," he said. "Maybe it will be back behind me, I don't know exactly where it will go. It kind of flies in the air where it wants and when I land I can twist my leg or something. It's pretty scary, but I can deal with it.

"I'm not going to let anything hold me down."

This is not just about playing football, it's about being a football player for as long as he can. After all, Contreras said, if he hadn't been playing football, he might never have been diagnosed in time.

"I want to get a few tackles and make a difference, hopefully get a few big blocks," Contreras said. "I don't want to be just another jersey out there. That's something I never want to do. If I got playing time, I wanted to show the coaches I belong out there, that this isn't a mistake taking a chance on me."

Contreras could be back on the field today when Rolling Hills Prep takes on Windward in the CIF eight-man football playoffs. An important date, to be sure.

So is Monday, the day Contreras returns for more follow-up tests.

It was on Nov. 22, 2009, that he first went for an X-ray.

"There's always a thought in my head that if (the cancer) did come back, I don't know what I would do," Contreras said. "It's something totally different to know that there's a huge risk, that it could come back, it could come back in my brain, my lungs, anywhere. It's something that fazes me when I think of the word `Thanksgiving' ...

"Coming on the one-year anniversary and I'm already back to the way life is, just to know if something would happen in these next scans coming up, I don't know what I would do."