Once the golf ball-sized cancerous tumor in his brain began robbing him of his vision, Ricky Quintanilla would sit in front of his computer and listen to YouTube videos of other coaches delivering his favorite motivational speech.
“It’s called the ‘I am a Champion’ speech,” said John Murillo, Quintanilla’s father and the defensive coordinator for the Goleman Senior High School football team.
Some of the words: “I will conquer what has not been conquered. Defeat will not be in my creed. Who am I? I am a champion,” Murillo said last week as he fought back tears. “It’s the team’s job to chant ‘I am a champion.’”
Quintanilla loved that part. “Toward the end, he used to listen to it all the time,” Murillo said. “On his [tombstone] it says: ‘I’m a son. I’m a friend. I’m a brother.’ And at the very end, it says, ‘I am a champion.’ That will be with him forever. And it will forever be with me.”
The speech that once brought comfort to a dying 23-year-old man now does the same for his father, his twin brother, and the football family at Goleman in Northwest Miami-Dade. In fact, it has become a tradition for the Gators.
For the past two years, Murillo, 53, has recited his son’s favorite speech to the team during the week of the anniversary of his son’s death. This Saturday, Sept.20, will mark three years. So Murillo is planning to deliver the speech Thursday night shortly before the Gators (0-3) line up to take on district rival American (2-1) at Milander Park in Hialeah.
Only this time, the speech figures to be even more emotional because Murillo, a former U.S. Marine, spent the summer fighting cancer himself.
Doctors removed an eight-inch tumor from his left shin in late June. Three weeks later, Murillo, using an adult stroller, was back on the field at Goleman, organizing and running the team’s summer conditioning drills even though doctors had told him he probably should take a couple of months off.
Murillo said doctors have told him the chances of the cancer returning are slim to none, but he knows first-hand that beating the disease isn’t easy. Ricky had his first cancerous brain tumor removed in 2007 and was cancer-free for 31/2 years before it came back stronger and killed him. In the meantime, Murillo said, his son lived his life to the fullest, serving as the linebackers coach at Goleman.
“Ricky had three surgeries to remove cancer from his brain,” Murillo said. “All that time, we were out here coaching together. He would come out of the surgery, and a week later he’d be out there with stitches in his head yelling at the kids about blowing assignments. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Sadly, tragedy or heartbreak has always seemed to hit the Goleman football family.
Last November, the school’s all-time leading rusher, Oscar Enriquez, drowned after attending an electronic dance music festival in Orlando. Coach Ariel Cribeiro said he played for Goleman from 2006 to ’09.
Cribeiro said Quintanilla was actually the second player from Goleman’s 2004 district championship team — the only Gators team to reach the playoffs — to die from a brain tumor. Cribeiro, who played alongside Quintanilla, said the backup running back on that team, Jorge Pozo, died from the disease in 2008.
Leonard Patrick, who coached Goleman and that 2004 district championship team, stepped away from the game a few years ago because of a heart condition. He still teaches at the school.
“I don’t know if I need to check the helmets, dig under the ground of our practice field or what, but there’s just something about it where we’ve had to overcome more adversity than most,” Cribeiro said.
“I was here as the offensive coordinator the year Ricky passed, and I can tell you every time we come out on this football field, we think about him. Now with coach Murillo, the kids see the same fight. He’s been a model of consistency for our team. He makes it hard for any of the kids to miss any practices or any workouts because the coach is in a lot rougher situation than anything they could possibly be going through.”
Ricky Quintanilla’s twin brother, Peter, has been through it all with his father and brother. He and Ricky were at Averett College, a DivisionIII program in Danville, Virginia, when Ricky began to have migraine headaches. The two came home from school after their second year, and that’s when Ricky was diagnosed with cancer. After his surgery in June 2007, both began coaching at Goleman as assistants.
Peter said he was in charge of the defensive line, Ricky coached the linebackers, and their father was a junior varsity assistant. They spent every afternoon together coaching and talking football — until the day Ricky died. When Ricky passed, Murillo joined the varsity staff as defensive coordinator and Peter took over the linebacker coaching duties because his brother had wanted him to.
“It’s been hard, but with my faith in God, I just hope for the best,” Peter said. “With Ricky, it’s just something that was just meant to be. There was nothing we could do about it. At least now he’s in a better place and he’s not suffering anymore.”
Each year, Murillo awards a $500 scholarship to the program’s best student-athlete in honor of his late son. Murillo said he’s going to continue to do that — and coach football — until he “kicks the bucket and Peter has to take over.”
“Honestly, my wife is the strong one,” Murillo said. “She lost her son, her father and her mother in a span of 13 months. Then I come along this summer with my thing. I don’t know too many people who can handle that and keep doing what she’s doing. For me, my faith is what saves me. A gentleman once told me, ‘When you go through those trials and tribulations, if you’re not closer to God after that, then you went through it in vain.’
“I believe that.”