Some stories never get old. Years can pass and then something, or someone, triggers a memory and the next thing you know you’re looking back, sort of like blowing the dust off an old record. For me, this is one of those stories.
It was a typical fall morning in El Paso, the kind that start off cold but by 10 a.m. you wondered why in the world you ever needed a jacket in the first place. I was a few days away from making the drive up to San Francisco to start Graduate School but before I left, I knew I needed to thank the man that helped me get into USF.
Coach Leo Cancellare and I walked down the main hall and towards the cafeteria at Cathedral High School. His stout, barreled chest was now whittled down to mere skin and bones and that boom of a voice I used to hear echo throughout the halls as a student there had now been reduced to a whisper. Cancer made sure of that. We were on our way to grab a tomato, something the ladies in the cafeteria made him eat every day to keep him healthy.
I remember how much I hated to see him in such a state, how even though I needed to thank this man for basically lying to a review board to get me into my program – the man built me up to be some kind of All-American, which, very clearly I was not – I just wanted to be gone as fast I could.
“Coach,” I began when the time was right and the small talk finally subsided. “I can’t thank you enough for your help.”
Cancellare began to shake his head in interruption. He made a face as if that fresh tomato had just turned rotten and mushy.
“Listen to me, Cortez,” he said in a rasp. “You never needed that letter to begin with. I mean, damn look at you! You have everything in your grasp. Me? I was always just an average guy that tried hard. You’re not average in anything you do if you can learn to tell yourself two words.”
“What do you mean?”
“Two words, son,” he continued, “will get you far in this life. That job you may not feel you’re qualified for? The hot babe that you might think is out of your league? No matter what the obstacle, these two magic words will propel you.”
“What are they?” I asked, more than intrigued. The cafeteria was silent except for the buzz of a flickering fluorescent light over our heads.
Cancellare stared right into my eyes.
Similar to the Nike slogan, “F it” was more blunt and direct for Coach. Looking back, his two-word piece of advice was more than a mantra; it was an attitude for him. I promised him that I would adopt the same attitude from that point on.
Coach died a few months later, on Good Friday 1999.
And like most good stories, the kind that never get old, it was a perfect stranger that helped me recall my last encounter with Coach Leo, blowing the dust off of a fond memory.
Robert Garza, in his autobiographical account called A Love Story, tells of the day he finally mustered the courage to ask out his amorcito, his little love, Rebecca, back in 1981 despite the fact that he had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair – and she was not.
“I was fearful because I could not speak clearly and my muscles would sometimes spasm when I tried speaking,” Garza writes. I asked myself, ‘Robert, what will you do if you start having a seizure and she calls 911?'”
And in epic “F it” fashion, Garza answers himself: “The worst that would happen would be her trying to administer CPR on me!”
He goes on to write about their blind love for one another, how she looked beyond his disability when others, including him, did not.
Garza and I will be giving a writing workshop at the Our Lives Disabilities Conference in October and to be quite honest, before yesterday, at least, I was pretty nervous about it. My book, Night Rhythms, will be out by then, and it’ll be the first time people will really get to see it. But thanks to Garza, I remembered Coach Leo’s advice, his gift.
I think everyone has their own “F it” moments, and each time they do they ask themselves the proverbial question: “What do I have to lose, anyway?” More importantly, “What do I have to gain?”
In Garza’s case, he gained a life partner, a best friend and a love he may have never had if not for one courageous moment in 1981.