Sometimes football is more than a game, and no one may understand that better than Julio Fuentes. Ten years ago, he tore up the Alfred University field. Short in stature, but a ball of energy and a power that demanded attention from all 11 defenders.
“He was 5’2”, 150 lb. running back who played against a lot of guys who were a lot bigger than him. He was bigger than all of them on the field,” said his coach, Bob Rankle, who remembers Julio’s style of play well. “He was the toughest son of a gun I ever had the opportunity to coach.”
That grit was on display in his sophomore year during the season opener. It was a kickoff. Julio didn’t catch the ball, but while trying to block an oncoming player there was a collision.
“I remember it all,” said Fuentes. “I tried to get up and as soon as that happened. I knew right then, I was paralyzed.”
It was a spinal cord injury. Forget about fighting for every yard on the field, Julio was fighting for his life.
Julio’s brother Maleke was 12. He saw the whole thing.
“The original prognosis was he was paralyzed from the neck down. He would never walk again. That’s what the doctor told him, as soon as he got out of surgery,” recalled Maleke.
“It’s just tough going from being able to do whatever you want to do, to not being able to do anything,” said Julio.
After an induced coma Julio was dependent to his wheelchair. A battle bigger than any football game was just beginning.
For years, he worked against the odds. After hours upon hours of physical therapy, Julio got the use of his arms back. And ever so slowly, Julio started moving his legs, again.
That gave his physical therapist an idea, walk on the field where he was hurt.
“I’m getting stronger and stronger. So, it just felt like it was the right time,” said Julio.
His girlfriend had a better idea. Walk off the field. Something Julio was never able to do, ten years ago.
“Julio called me and said, ‘hey, coach, I want to walk off the field,’” said Rankle.
“It almost sounds like one of those scripts that gets written, and no, this couldn’t happen,” added Paul Vecchio, Alfred University’s Athletic Director.
“Once he told me that he was going to do that, I had no doubt that he was going to make that happen,” added Rankle.
Ten years of hardship, ten years of sweat, ten years of a wheelchair; a decade after being taken off the Alfred University field, Julio Fuentes, stood up and walked off.
“Everybody had tears in their eye,” remembered Maleke, he’s Julio’s brother, but also a member of the current Alfred Saxons team. “It literally happened ten feet away from the spot where he got hurt.”
Julio’s day wasn’t done.
On the side lines, the president of Alfred University told Julio the school would pay for him to finish his education. A cherry on top to an already momentous day.
As if this September 3rd could top any other day, Julio’s day got even better.
He no longer had a girlfriend by his side. He now has a fiancée.
Ten years of struggle building up to this day, this perfect day.
“I never really got too down. I’ve always worked hard. So, just keeping that mindset and knowing that it’s going to get better, really helped out in the process,” said Julio.
Julio Fuentes, won’t be a ball of energy running back every again and for Julio that’s OK. His football story is off the field, now. He hopes to use his degree to help people struggling though injuries like the one he has endured.
In more than one way, the Alfred University field is the start of Julio’s journey. It’s where he was hurt, where he walked off and where he begins the rest of his life.
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