Heywood Hale Broun, a witty, erudite sportswriter and TV commentator for CBS in the 60s, 70s and 80s, once said that "sports do not build character, sports reveal character." For two decades, he was drawn to writing about athletes who had a fierce inner drive to succeed, which he found essential to greatness.
If he were alive today, he would likely have found inspiration in a young athlete from New Mexico whose character and passion for sports not only put him at the top of his peer group — but also got him through the toughest battle of his young life.
Isaac Velasquez was a stellar, four-sport athlete in his final year at Santa Rosa High School in New Mexico a year ago. Being a senior heading into the 2014-15 school year, he was excited to compete one last time against his rivals at neighboring high schools. But then something happened that changed everything.
Soon after scoring a whopping four touchdowns in a football game last September, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
"I [couldn't] wait to see what the rest of the season and the rest of this senior year [held] for him," his father, Leonard Velasquez, says. "Then two weeks later, he gets diagnosed with cancer."
"It came as a complete shock," Isaac recalls. "It was my senior year. I thought I was invincible."
Isaac was involved in basketball, track, baseball and football, excelling at each.
After the diagnosis, however, Isaac had to sit out the games — watching from the sidelines as others took part in his favorite sports. But he had no choice; he had to treat the disease before it was too late.
He had surgery, then went through a grueling battery chemotherapy.
The entire athletic community rallied around him. Rival schools held fundraisers to help him with his recovery. "They were there fighting with him not against him," Leonard says.
In March, he started feeling better and made was ready for a return to sports.
But it wasn't just any game he'd chosen for his comeback. It was the state basketball championships. With seconds left in the championships, Isaac came onto the court to thunderous applause. Although his team lost, he got the last shot of the game, and that was more than enough.
"Playing meant so much, more than a state championship to me really," he says.
"It truly was a sight to see," adds his father.
At the time of the game, Isaac was said to be near remission. This fall, he hopes to go to New Mexico State University and play baseball for the Aggies. He credits his passion for the game and the desire to help his team as motivators for getting through his illness.
"I just want to be there with my team," he says. "The one thing I can say, never give up."
His love of sports, loyalty to his teammates, and the many other intangibles that lead to greatness both in sports and in life all helped Isaac overcome a life-threatening illness. He had the ambition and determination in him all along, and his commitment as an athlete is helped get him back on his feet — and back in the game.
Broun's pithy refrain aside, there is little doubt that the character traits Isaac honed on the court also guided him to a victory over the disease the threatened not only his athletic career but his life as well.
Watch a video of Isaac's return below: