Getting on the pitch in a live game and touching the ball was all Ezra Black hoped for on Tuesday when he joined his Liberty Common High School football teammates.
The opportunity to score a goal, replacing an ‘injured’ teammate from a penalty, was so beyond his expectations that he struggled to find the words to express his feelings.
The elder from Liberty Common spent seven weeks in August and September at Aurora Children’s Hospital undergoing treatment for leukemia.
“I’ve loved football my whole life so being able to play in a college game and score a goal in my senior year with cancer is just amazing,” he said after the 10- win. 1 of the Eagles against Valley.
Black had recovered enough from his first round of chemotherapy to go home two weeks ago. He surprised his teammates during recent training and was even able to attend school in person this week, wearing a mask inside due to his weakened immune system.
On Monday, he told coach Cyrus Salehi he felt healthy enough to step onto the pitch, even for a minute or two, for what will likely be the only time this year.
So Black wore his crampons, red shorts and red jersey with the words “Ezra Strong,” which all Eagles wear on the top of their left sleeve this season. He warmed up a bit before the game, taking breaks when Salehi asked him to, and he was on the bench with the other reservists at the start of the game.
With a 4-0 halftime lead, Salehi put Black on the pitch as a defender to start the second half, flanking him with two teammates to protect him. The Eagles (6-4) returned the ball to him to start the second half, and he threw it down the field, then instinctively ran to midfield to lend his support.
When Valley brought the ball back to midfield, Black followed the other defenders until his teammates regained control.
There were high-fives all around, from his teammates on the pitch as he ran away, from Salehi and assistant coaches when he got on the sidelines and the other Eagles on the bench as he passed. to take place at the end.
In the middle of the second half, Josh Salehi suffered a foul and Ryan Anderson fell to the ground with a “cramp” that required a stoppage of play and a substitution.
Black entered, who took the penalty kick and fired a shot past the Valley keeper about 15 yards for a goal.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Cyrus Salehi.
He was certainly not alone. Dozens of parents and students, many of whom wore orange “Ezra Strong” t-shirts in his honor, were also in tears as they cheered on Black, one of two student presidents elected last spring.
Orange is the color that has been designated to raise awareness of childhood leukemia.
“It meant a lot to see how much the school actually cares about me,” Black said. “And we have the volleyball game back home in about 30 minutes; it’s an orange-out, so all the stands will be orange.
Black didn’t know he had leukemia until July 30, when he and his parents learned the news following a blood test in an emergency room at UCHealth Urgent Care in Fort Collins. The 17-year-old had returned earlier today from Virginia, where he and his Liberty Common teammates had attended a team football camp at Liberty University.
He left the emergency care facility in an ambulance and was immediately rushed to a children’s hospital after tests revealed “dangerously low” levels of healthy red blood cells, his father, Vince Black, said.
“It’s sort of the worst-case scenario of a nightmare,” Vince said. “The doctor walked in and said those numbers were dangerously low, like what you would see in leukemia or lymphoma. You hear these words for the first time in the ER and in your world and everything around it sort of crumbles.
“The 1.5 hour ambulance ride to the children’s hospital seemed like an eternity.”
Ezra was officially diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, admitted to the intensive care unit, and scheduled for the first round of chemotherapy treatments. He spent the next seven weeks in hospital and was due to return on Wednesday to start another round of chemotherapy, he said.
He feels a lot better now, he said, than he was when he started his previous chemotherapy treatments.
Ezra has to go through three cycles – each lasting about 10 days with a four to eight week recovery required between each – before having a bone marrow transplant which doctors say will cure him.
Asher, the oldest of his four younger brothers and a sophomore debutant on the Liberty Common football team, is a perfect match, said Vince, pastor at The Town Church.
“You are not mentally ready to be diagnosed with cancer when you go to emergency care for a cough,” Ezra said. “It was shocking and devastating going into my senior year, school president, football captain, all of that.”
His teammates also struggled with the diagnosis. Although they rallied around Ezra’s family and immediately launched several fundraising efforts, their emotions caught up with them around the time they were playing their first matches, Salehi said.
They were flat, emotionally and physically, he said, in a 3-0 loss to Fort Collins, a Class 5A program, and in the first half of a 3-1 loss to Faith Christian.
For an extended half, 15 minutes instead of the usual 10, “we just spoke fondly of Ezra and where everyone was,” Salehi said. “We shed tears.
“At the end of the half I said the best way to pay tribute to him was to go play. He wishes he could be here to do what you’re doing, so go fight.
They still lost that match, and the next, 1-0 at class 5A power Valor Christian, where the video of the host team chatted with Ezra for a pre-match prayer for his recovery and the match. -same. They also shared the CaringBridge.com and GoFundMe.com pages created for him and his family on their video board during the game.
“Worth is a class act,” Salehi said. “It went beyond football.”
Liberty Common, who fired much of the roster of a team that had played in the state’s Class 3A semifinals during the COVID-19 delayed 2020 season that took place in the spring last, stepped up his game in that game and hasn’t stopped since.
Tuesday’s victory, their fifth by a margin of eight or more goals, was the seventh in a row for the Eagles (7-3), ranked 9th among Class 3A schools in the latest CHSAANow.com poll.
“It’s been tough,” said Josh Salehi, team captain and Eagles top scorer with 17 goals until Monday. “We really feel like a piece of us is missing. But whatever we do, we always remember him, and he’s always on our minds. We kind of see him as we fight alongside him.
On Tuesday they really were, even if it was only for a few symbolic minutes and a festive penalty kick in an unbalanced victory.
“It was a bit surreal,” said Josh Salehi. “I was so happy for him and so happy for all the fans to see him. It was just an amazing experience for him. We were really hoping he could come in and take a PK, and it happened. The stars lined up.
Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest to Coloradoan. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. If you are a subscriber, thank you for your support. If not, consider purchasing a digital subscription today.