Story by Sean Farrell / Record Sports Department
The promise came inside a busy hospital hallway, with IVs hooked up to David Guerra’s teenage body.
His fight with leukemia was just beginning on that day in 2016. Only a few hours had passed since he received the life-changing news. But Guerra was defiant when he met coach Chris Alfieri at Hackensack University Medical Center. He guaranteed that he would get back on the field and out of that emergency room.
Cancer would not take his life. It could not stop him from playing soccer.
“I had no reason to not feel confident,” said Guerra, now a senior at Saddle Brook. “I had no reason to doubt myself.”
Guerra scored just three points in a Saddle Brook uniform, but did more than maybe any Falcon. He inspired his teammates and his community when he beat cancer and defied the expectations. It took him just 13 months to make a heroic comeback, just two years to become a unanimous team captain.
He will accept a Charlie McGill Scholarship Award from the NorthJersey.com staff at Thursday night’s Sports Awards for his quiet determination in the face of cancer.
“He would never say to anybody that he’s sick,” said his mother, Ruth. “He never makes an excuse. He’s always good. Positive. Someone who gets along with everybody.”
One step into Guerra’s Oxford Avenue home shows how much soccer is a part of his life. Team photos cover the kitchen fridge and the Falcon logo sits prominently in the top-left corner. Guerra tried baseball and basketball early on, but it never quite captured his attention like FC Barcelona or a game of FIFA.
“He’s a leader,” Alfieri said. “He’s a coach on the field. He knows where everyone should be and what they should be doing and he’s able to direct them.”
The early signs of trouble came on the soccer field, late in Guerra’s freshman year. He looked slow and lethargic in spring games and became dizzy at a captain’s practice on the first day of summer. Even when he tried splashing water on his face, he still felt disoriented.
Doctors first believed it was mononucleosis and told Guerra to take a break from sports. Then red flags appeared when a few rounds of antibiotics didn’t seem to help. A high fever and some headaches were taking away his energy. And after a while, his mother started looking for answers.
“He was getting more pale,” said Ruth Guerra, who left her native Peru at 17. “Something bothered me because this was already four weeks since I took him there. He should have some improvement.”
Guerra went back for even more tests. He received an X-ray and a heart exam. The final verdict was handed down on July 22 in a small first-floor emergency room with doctors, nurses and social workers gathering around him. It was acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“They just told me that I was going to get better with time,” Guerra said. “The first question I asked was when can I get to play soccer again.”
Guerra wasn’t satisfied when told it may take two to three years. He wanted to come back sooner and tried to be around the Falcons when possible. It was difficult during the early stages of chemotherapy when he made four trips a week to the hospital. It was clear though how important Guerra and his teammates became to each other. Saddle Brook rallied around him with an unexpected 10-7-2 record in his sophomore season.
“All those guys on the team just looked at it and said, how am I going to complain?” Alfieri said. “How am I going to say that I can’t do this if he’s doing everything he’s doing and coming here saying he wishes he was on the field.”
Guerra tried to keep a positive attitude, even as the disease took its toll. He remembers being at a soccer banquet when the right side of his body started feeling heavy. His mind was racing as he limped up to the podium to receive the Team Spirit award.
“Half my body went numb,” Guerra said. “It was like I was paralyzed in half my body. I was literally using every single chair to keep myself up.”
Guerra takes some comic relief when thinking about a few of the side effects.
The steroids he used made him hungry and the chemo led to intense cravings. He went through a Subway phase for some time and then became the most reliable customer at Noches de Columbia in Hackensack. He ordered so much food from Jersey Mike’s that they created The David Special – a bacon cheesesteak without onions or peppers. Sometimes, all that stopped him from eating were the muscle spasms that took control of his arms.
“I came downstairs and got an icepop,” Guerra said. “My arm was getting tingly. As I was eating the icepop, I kept missing my mouth. I was like, what is going on?”
Guerra officially returned to the soccer team for his junior season. He floated between the JV and varsity levels as he regained his coordination and built up his immune system. Every minute on the field had to be earned.
The Falcons called him up for good this fall and gave him a starting role. The wins were hard to come by, but there were redeeming moments along the way. Guerra drew a penalty kick in a home game against St. Mary and went bottom right for the first of two varsity goals.
It was the shot that turned little Saddle Brook into a soccer cathedral.
“It was the standard crowd of friends, a couple parents,” Alfieri said. “But it sounded like 30,000.”
Guerra is now considered cancer-free. He still goes for occasional checkups and spinal injections, but the finish line is in sight.
Four sets of pills will drop to one in November. His treatment finally wraps up early next year.
The battle will be won.