Fly, Antonio, Fly

 

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-Lincoln Financial Field

“When you begin working for the Eagles, you will quickly begin to realize that the best part is getting to know the fans you will meet along the way.”

That’s what I was told at the end of a four-hour interviewing process on a perfect, sunny Friday afternoon.

I didn’t buy it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting new people and hearing the stories they have to share. As a former barista, I enjoyed interacting with the customers that shuffled in and out on a regular basis, but I was about to begin working for the Philadelphia Eagles, an experience I was fortunate to have during my junior year of college.

As someone who hopes to work in the sports world, this was a big deal. I was more excited to meet the revered gridiron heroes that conquer Sunday television than I was to meet the average fan. In fact, the one line on my resume felt more important than the thousands of fans that came through the stadium. How could the best part of working for the Eagles simply be getting to meet the fans?

After all, they just blend into one enormous consolidation of green week in and week out. We would have short-term memories; chances are they wouldn’t see or remember me, and I would feel the same way for them.

At least, that’s what I thought.

~~~

It was an exciting time to work for the Eagles, as they were coming off of a 10-win season and there were high hopes–and even higher expectations–for the second year of the Chip Kelly era.

After a couple of lengthy sessions of orientation, I was ready to work every home game as a part of the Game Day Staff, where I completed various tasks that changed each week–duties such as ticket taking, ushering, guest services, and other miscellaneous tasks.

I didn’t even grow up an Eagles fan. I grew up in a small town with a big football presence in New York. I was raised a Giants fan and was working in enemy territory. It didn’t matter to me, as the opportunity to work behind the scenes of NFL games was too good to pass. I learned the words to “Fly, Eagles, Fly!” and blended in pretty nicely.

Each week, I arrived to Lincoln Financial Field with a child-like excitement. Euphoria ran through my veins every time I got off of the subway on Broad Street. With each step I took closer to the stadium, I could feel the magic of being able to work for the Eagles. The smell of burgers and hotdogs, fans with ostentatious gear that you could spot a mile away, and the sight of tailgating on almost every square inch of the parking lots–it all added to the allure of game day.

However, there was one day that I didn’t feel the magic.

Surprisingly, it was when the Giants came to Philly to play the Eagles on Sunday Night Football in Week 6 of the season.

Of course, in a rivalry game fans are even more spirited than ever, but I just wasn’t feeling it. The college I was attending was on its Fall Break–campus was deserted; meanwhile, I had to stay behind and get a delayed start to a much-needed break after a grueling midterm week.

The walk from Broad Street Station to the Linc had adverse effects, unlike before. There was no magic, no chills–just an overwhelming desire to go home.

Once I arrived, I was given a new responsibility–wheelchair duty, where I had to take and assist fans, who required the use of one, to their seats.

My supervisor made me take the first call, since I had never done it before. I pushed my wheelchair over to the gate.

I put on my best smile to greet the fan, but he wasn’t ready for it. He was gasping for air, exhausted. It looked like he just went an on odyssey to reach the Linc. He grimaced in pain, as he sat down on the wheelchair.

Along the way, we finally made our introductions. His name was Antonio, and he was accompanied by family friend Deanna and her two kids, Allie and Casey.

Antonio wore a loose fitting Eagles sweatshirt, with a matching beanie to go along with it. It seemed like he was the only one prepared for the game, as the others weren’t wearing anything Eagles-related. Casey, who resembled a young Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series, sported a Manchester United jersey. Allie, a rather shy and quiet girl, wore a generic gray sweater. Meanwhile, Deanna, a motherly and friendly woman, wore a jet black jacket but later revealed a pair of Giants socks to reveal her true allegiance.

They were supposed to meet someone at the media entrance. I couldn’t just leave them alone, so I waited along with them in the lobby for what ended up being a couple of hours.

The wait wasn’t so bad. We talked the whole time. Despite the fact that Antonio and I couldn’t really agree on much–he didn’t like the Rangers, he loved Real Madrid, while I supported rival FC Barcelona, and of course, there was a schism left from the Eagles-Giants rivalry–we engaged in friendly trash talk and conversed like old friends. He made it feel that way. He was vibrant, friendly, and hilarious–a natural jokester with a great sense of humor.

The laughs took a quick standstill, when he pulled off his beanie to scratch his head, revealing a scalp free of her. It was then I realized, he was fighting cancer. Deanna noticed the stunned look on my face and unzipped her jacket, uncovering a shirt with a yellow ribbon and the words, “Team Antonio.” She told me quietly that he had a 25 percent chance of survival.

Before his 16th birthday, he felt a nagging pain in his leg. He thought it was just soreness paid at the price of being a soccer player. He decided to get it checked out. After some evaluations, it was discovered that he had Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects approximately 250 people in America each year. Since then, he had been going through numerous rounds of chemotherapy and cancer treatment. There was a brief moment of sanctuary, as his body was close to being cancer-free, but it was only the eye of the storm–it returned and the fight continued.

It was the first time I had been exposed to someone who was fighting cancer. The first time my own eyes saw the battle upfront. I looked straight at the disease only to see a teenager who fought it with a smile and a laugh. He didn’t fear it. Instead, he joked about it. A lot.

His optimism and attitude was beautiful. He was determined and unfazed.

Although I had just met him hours before, he made me feel right at home.

Our conversation resumed without a hitch, he shared with me of his dream to beat the disease, graduate high school, and go to college at Caldwell University.

He was your everyday kid. Antonio played the drums in his free time. He asked me about what college was like, we talked about movies and girls. At one point, he humorously snatched the Eagles’ Cheerleaders Swimsuit Calendar and took a picture of it for his Instagram.

Finally, the woman who was supposed to meet them came and presented them with tickets for the game. They were given VIP passes to go onto the field, I thought my job would be finished here, but it wasn’t.

They graciously asked if I could come along, to which the woman said yes. After being escorted through a series of hallways, we finally exited through the tunnel that players went through. Once we stepped onto the other side, it was like a whole different world.

We were sent to the corner of the end zone, where players were warming up. It was the first time either of us had set foot onto a NFL field, and it was magical. The atmosphere felt much different on the ground below than in the stands up above. The air felt lighter, as if we could take flight. This was hallowed ground, where dreams were made. Dreams of newly arrived NFL rookies were realized on this field, as they set foot in their first NFL game. That night, Antonio’s dreams were coming true. It was his night.

A few players greeted us–Nick Foles, Darren Sproles, and longtime tight end Brent Celek. They shook our hands. Celek presented Antonio with a ball and whipped out a marker to sign it. Al Michaels, the broadcaster, came by to say hello. As I put on my pretend journalist identity, holding an imaginary mic and asking him how he felt, he was unable to put his elation into words. His eyes lit up brighter than the giant light fixtures used to light up the whole stadium.

Then came LeSean McCoy, who gave him a high five and a pair of gloves. On the other end of the field, the Giants were warming up too. Eli Manning was throwing passes to Victor Cruz and the rest of the receivers. Music pulsated throughout the Linc, as everyone was getting pumped up for the game.

The fun was cut short. My supervisor was screeching in my ear, asking where I had gone to for so long. After explaining my situation, I was told to return to command post and that the Eagles were sending in a specialist to handle it–probably just some generic PR person.

I said my farewells to Antonio and everyone else. My stomach tightened, because I felt like I was saying goodbye to a longtime friend. I wished that I had something better to say. I hugged him and closed it out with the default, “Enjoy the game!” just as I trained to do.

Upon returning to the command post, I was told to wait for a new wheelchair and to resume my work duties. However, the wheelchair never came, and I was eventually told to just watch the game. I asked my supervisor if she had Antonio’s seating information. After all, part of my responsibilities were to check in with the fans in the wheelchair sections once in a while to make sure everything was okay. I was hoping that he was enjoying himself.

The Eagles destroyed the Giants that night, shutting them out 27-0. I’m sure he was somewhere in the stadium having a blast.

As I left the locker room after getting changed and prepared to clock out, I spotted a familiar wheelchair from a distance moving into the inner depths of the stadium.

It was Antonio.

I moved towards him, only to be met by security. No matter how much I pleaded to be let through, they were firm in sending me the other way.

I watched idly by, as he rolled away into the distance. I wondered if I was ever going to see him again.

The season unfolded and the Eagles finished with 10 wins once again, but it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs. I never got to see him again, but I never lost sight of that day.

Antonio finished high school, but never got to start college. He passed away on July 15, 2015.

The news reached my way that fall. Although I was no longer working for the Eagles, I never forgot the profound impact that day and his way of life had.

The score didn’t matter. Frankly, the celebrities and athletes I got to meet weren’t even the best part. Sure, it was nice to be on the sidelines for a bit during an Eagles-Giants game.

Instead, the big takeaway from it all was being around someone who loved life. While most people his age were worried about passing their road test or figuring out what they were wearing to prom, he was fighting. He fought with a million dollar smile and a happy-go-lucky lifestyle.

From being around him, he taught me to appreciate every day and to immerse yourself into living, to not just run through the motions for the sake of doing it. He led me to a newfound appreciation for life, but also for those close to me.

I learned more from him than any other day on the job.

When I tell friends or peers that I used to work for the Eagles, one of the first things they would ask me is, “Did you get to meet any players?” I share with them that I have, and I name them.

While it is exciting to meet NFL players, it’s unfortunate they won’t quite understand the even greater awe in meeting Antonio Santos.

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-CHOP

 

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