‘Let’s keep on fighting’
Football helps Sanders cope with tumor on brain stem
Arvis Sanders has a personality far bigger than his 290 pounds.
His smile rarely fades and he’s a boisterous jokester.
Arvis Sanders is alive, loving life and playing semipro football for the Grand Junction Gladiators.
Not to be overly dramatic, but football helped save big No. 99’s life.
On Feb. 23, 2012, Sanders was told he had cancer. An inoperable tumor had attached itself to his brain stem.
News like that has a way of ripping a person to shreds.
“Why me?” was his first thought. Then came depression.
Then came hope and determination.
“I was talking to my mom, and I got back from church, prayed, and I said, ‘You know what, my mom and dad didn’t raise no quitter. I’m a fighter, so let’s keep on fighting.’ “
His resolve was like a runaway blitzing linebacker. But first, the news buckled his knees.
“My whole world stopped,” he says. Then all his life memories started clicking through his mind.
He thought about playing catch with his dad, his mom teaching him how to cook, spending time with his sisters, he thought about everything. He thought about death.
“I got real scared.”
That’s when the 28-year-old Palisade High School graduate hunkered down for the long fight.
“I was in a fight for my life. I was scared, emotional, I was angry, I was depressed, but the Man upstairs gave me the strength, and here I am today,” he says with his huge smile.
His family helped yank him out of his brief depression and get him focused on the battle.
“My mom said, ‘you gotta beat this,’ and I said, ‘I will, I will.’ “
He takes a deep breath, thinking about the last year and a half, reflecting on how far he’s come.
“I told myself that I was going to beat this, but if (cancer) does take me, everyone will remember me as Arvis, the guy who fought and he fought and fought until my last breath.”
FOCUS TURNS TO FOOTBALL
About four months after the diagnosis, and in the midst of his chemotherapy treatments, Sanders sat in the Stocker Stadium stands and rooted on a friend who was playing for the Gladiators.
That’s when Sanders made a promise to himself and others.
“I told my doctor and all my friends that I’d be out here playing football next season. That’s the goal I’ve been living,” he says.
There’s well-earned pride in his voice when he talks about playing with the Gladiators.
Sanders isn’t just a guy with cancer who roams the sidelines and cheers on his teammates. He’s a major contributor at defensive tackle.
He’s a contrast. The smiling, jovial teammate on the sideline, then the ferocious, intense defensive tackle on the field.
There were some uneasy times when he first started with the team.
Pulling that helmet on for the first time in 10 years, for the first time since he pancaked cancer, Arvis said it was scary.
“I thought, ‘why football?’ A sport where I could get hit in the back of the head, helmet to helmet, but I told myself I could do it. I love football.”
Then he strapped on the pads, laced up the cleats, tugged on that helmet and it was on.
“After that first time, getting that first hard knock, getting the butterflies out, I was like, OK this is fun, let’s do it again,” he says with his trademark chuckle-laugh.
Then came the first game and the butterflies were angry and in full-blown revolt.
Taking the field after a decade away from the game was nerve-racking, but it was the tumor that still taunted him.
“I didn’t want to take a blow to the head and have a seizure,” he says.
In complete bluntness, Sanders confesses that he’s ashamed and embarrassed when seizures strike and he hits the ground.
When he gets overheated and dehydrated, he gets dizzy and that triggers his seizures. He’s had only one seizure since he joined the team but hasn’t had one in more than four months.
In his first game with the Gladiators, Sanders had two tackles and a forced fumble.
“I had a good game,” he says proudly, and of course, smiling.
A RISKY DECISION?
But playing the collision sport of football after having a cancerous tumor on his brain stem? Playing football when getting a blow to the head could trigger a brain seizure?
Risky? Stupid? Ill-advised?
None of the above, says defensive coach Will Jones.
“There was a bit of concern at first,” he says. “His doctor said he was good to go. If (a seizure) is going to happen, it’s going to happen whether he’s at home or if he’s playing football.”
Jones says that everyone keeps a close eye on Sanders and he’s pulled out of practice and games if they think he’s getting fatigued or dehydrated.
Jones says Sanders is a good player and a great teammate.
“He fights through adversity and everyone sees that,” Jones said.
Sanders continues to take medication and confidently says that his cancer is in remission. His doctor called recently with some great news.
“He said that the tumor is shrinking. I said ‘really? You better not be messing with me,’ ” he says, laughing.
Sanders gives credit to everyone who helped him, giving the biggest shout-out to “the Man upstairs.”
Football has always been a love for Sanders, winning out over his love of singing.
“I was in the choir,” he says, beaming and hulking in his Gladiator uniform. “My parents wanted me to be in the choir but I told them I couldn’t be in the choir and play football.”
He still sings a little.
“Just by myself, in the shower,” he says, laughing.
All he knows now is that the fat lady is not singing.
It’s been a turbulent and triumphant 17 months and a few days for Sanders. Cancer challenged him, motivated him and pushed him.
His life has changed because of cancer. He’s dropped more than 60 pounds, he’s playing football, and his smile and laugh have never been more genuine.
“It’s my moment of triumph,” he says with a serious tone. “If I don’t do anything great in this world, if I don’t make a hundred million dollars or whatever it is, I can stand firmly on this — I looked death in the eyes and here I am still standing.”
And still smiling and joking.
And still playing football.
And loving life to the fullest whether he’s in or out of his Gladiator uniform.