If cancer couldn’t derail his senior football season at Rio Rico High, there was no way Ricky Perez was going to concede defeat to something as insignificant as a helmet to the knee.
Not on the night of his triumphant return to Hawk Field in front of a packed grandstand of adoring fans, including an army of loved ones sporting T-shirts reading: “Fight on, #RickyStrong.” Not with a team from CNN intently following his every move for an upcoming segment. Not after being crowned Homecoming king at halftime, and certainly not after a stinging home loss to county rivals Nogales.
And so 20 minutes after being helped off the field Friday night, grimacing in pain as the shaken crowd cheered him on, Perez stood on the same grass, supported by two family members, and vowed he’d be back.
“It just locked up when I got hit, but I’m good,” he said of the injury that left him prone on the field for several minutes late in the game.
Will he play again this season?
“No doubt, no doubt,” he said. “It was just a hit, but I’ll be fine. I’ll be playing next week.”
Friday was the second game of the season – though the first at home – for Perez, a star back who led all of Southern Arizona in rushing yards as a junior and caught the eye of several Division I
college recruiters. He missed the Hawks’ first four games as he underwent treatments for the cancer that was detected in several parts of his body in May.
It was a grueling experience for him and his family.
“There were moments of weakness that came over him, when he would say, ‘Mom, I can’t, I don’t want to anymore,’” said his mother, Blanca Perez. “But God gave me the words to encourage him, to support him, because he is a great warrior.”
Perez’s warrior spirit attracted state and national media attention after a front-page story in the Aug. 8 edition of the Nogales International recounted his battle with cancer and his determination to play again. The Arizona Republic quickly followed with its own story, as did Bleacher Report, a national sports news website.
Jeff York, an Atlanta-based producer with CNN, read the stories and decided Perez would be a perfect subject for a new program on CNN’s partner network HLN, “Positive Athlete,” which celebrates youth who have the right attitude about athletics or who overcome adversity.
“When you talk to people and you look at who Ricky is, he’s that and more,” York said from the sidelines of Friday’s game. “He’s a leader on his team, he’s got the GPA (3.8) to back it all up and I think what he’s gone through, a lot of people can identify with and see the strength that he shows and really get something out of it.”
York and videographer Tom Larson came to RRHS last Thursday to interview Perez, his family and school staff, and then record footage from Friday’s game. They also brought a special gift: A personalized message of encouragement to Perez from Hines Ward, a 14-year standout wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers, that York recorded on his phone.
“I showed it to him right before the interview and I told him, ‘Hey, I know Larry Fitzgerald is your favorite player, but Hines Ward might be up there now,’” York said.
Ward will narrate the “Positive Athletes” segment featuring Perez, which will air sometime in October, either during the first or third week of the month, York said.
Perez’s initial return to the gridiron on Sept. 15 at Rincon/University High School in Tucson, just a week after his final chemotherapy session on Sept. 8, also caused considerable media buzz – especially when Perez scored a touchdown in a 49-14 Hawks loss.
His parents have mixed feelings about all the notoriety. “I wish that it hadn’t been for this,” said his father Jose Manuel Perez, who noted that his son has been a staple of local sports pages for many years due to his exploits on the field. “But I know things happen for a reason.”
Perez’s mother Blanca said she hoped her son’s struggle would serve as inspiration for other youth in similar situations, who might take away a lesson “about being positive and how to come out ahead of great tests that life brings them.”
Perez’s return to action at Rincon was a major milestone in his recovery, but it was a road game and one in which he was limited to eight plays. Friday’s contest at RRHS against intra-county rivals from Nogales, a matchup that also served as Rio Rico’s 2017 Homecoming game, promised to be even more special.
Perez, whose 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound body took a beating from the cancer and chemotherapy, said he felt “a lot better” going into the Nogales game than against Rincon.
“I felt a little more conditioned,” he said. “It’s just day by day that I’m taking it, so I can get better.”
Even so, he had a hard time getting going against a tough Nogales defense. He was brought down for losses on his first two carries and threw an interception on one of several plays in which he took the snap at quarterback. By halftime, the visiting Apaches had taken a commanding 35-0 lead.
Those difficulties did nothing to diminish the support of the Hawk fans, however. They cheered Perez with every play, and when he was introduced at halftime as his school’s 2017 Homecoming king, he received a prolonged ovation.
Asked later about being named Homecoming king, he smiled and said: “That stuff is just extra.” Still, he proudly donned his crown while taking photos with family members after the game.
In the second half, Perez gave the fans a chance to cheer him for his on-the-field exploits.
After the Hawks drove deep into Nogales territory in the fourth quarter, he carried the ball four yards to the Nogales one-yard line. When the NHS defense mounted a goal line stand on third down, it brought up a fourth-and-inches situation in which everyone in the stadium knew who would get the ball: Perez.
Taking the snap at quarterback, he plunged forward, carrying the ball across the plane of the end zone for a touchdown as the Hawk fans, band and cheerleaders erupted. True to his character, Perez didn’t celebrate the accomplishment overtly. Instead, he hopped up off the turf and extended a helping hand to Isaac Gonzalez of Nogales, who had ended up on the bottom of the pile.
The excitement was short lived, however. After an interception that gave the ball back to Rio Rico, Perez was brought down in the backfield while scrambling for an opening.
He didn’t get up.
“Oh no, it’s Ricky!” exclaimed one of his teammates on the sideline as training staff rushed onto the field to attend to the fallen player, who was now clutching the back of his left knee in agony.
A hush fell over the crowd, punctuated by occasional cries of “Let’s go, Ricky!” and the more urgent “Get up, get up, get up!” from his teammates, who had taken a knee in respect. As the minutes passed, similar shouts of encouragement began coming from the Nogales side of the field as well.
Finally Perez got up off the turf and, with the support of trainers, limped to the sideline as the crowd broke into a loud chant of “Ri-cky! Ri-cky!” After a brief sideline exam, he was helped into the locker room, this time with his father providing support under his left arm.
To many in attendance, it looked like the end of the comeback story. But once the final whistle sounded, there was Perez, huddled up in the end zone with the teammates he refers to as his “brothers” as they dissected the 42-6 loss.
When the meeting broke up and he made his way back across the field, a family member under each arm for support, he paused to reflect on his rollercoaster night.
“They hit me with a helmet, straight down on the knee,” he said of his injury, before promising to return for the next game and expressing the joy he felt at being part of the game.
“It was great. It was just an experience, a blessing just to be out there with my teammates,” he said.
He also praised the support of the fans.
“The community’s support has always been there, it was never gone. I just want to thank each and every one of them,” he said. “It’s just a blessing.”
His final thoughts: “Just keep fighting.”
Then it was time for an emotional postgame reunion with the many family members, big and small, decked out in the white T-shirts with red hawk wings and supportive slogans. Once again, the chant of “Ri-cky! Ri-cky!” broke out as he received hugs and posed for photos, his eyes tearing up at times.
“It shows the type of person that Ricky is,” Hawk head coach Zach Davila said of the outpouring of affection. “Everybody loves him, everybody in this community respects him. They know how good a football player he is and they know how great a person he is. It’s awesome to see everybody get behind such a deserving person like him.”
As for the blow to the knee, Davila said it looked more like a bruise than a serious injury, though he promised that staff would make sure Perez is 100-percent ready for action before putting him on the field Friday at Pueblo.
“He’s an awesome kid,” Davila said. “Cancer couldn’t beat him and I don’t think a bruised knee will, either.”