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Life without regret

Salvador Reyes

Of the Keizertimes

If Salvador Reyes were a different type of person, his hair would tell his story.

It’s a bit limp, a bit thin, less full of life than the man himself. He might let his story be dictated by his hands. They’re troublesome lately, they get cold easier than they once did leaving him with a pins-and-needles feeling and difficulty gripping things. But, they’re only the reason he opts to sit inside the coffee shop rather than in the cooling evening air. These things aren’t Reyes’ story, they’re just the latest adaptations and the result of his most recent battle with stomach cancer – the doctors say this one is terminal, but he’s responding well to treatment.

Reyes’s story, and who he is despite his current struggles, began nearly 30 years ago on a Thursday morning in Mexico.

“I’d just graduated from eighth grade and my brother woke me up to tell me he was planning on visiting one of our other brothers in Salem,” Reyes said. “I asked him when he was leaving and he said 15 minutes.”

It was a big decision for the 14-year-old Reyes, one of 10 siblings, because it meant more than just a visit, it meant he might stay in the U.S. He sought out the counsel of his mother.

“We’d had a big fight a few days before about a decision she’d made for me. I thought it should have been my decision to make and we fought,” Reyes said.

Wise woman that she was, his mother turned the tables and said this was one he would have to sort out for himself.

Reyes and his brother bought tickets to the border and hopped a fence. Another brother met them on the other side. After a brief stop at Disneyland, they arrived in Salem the following Wednesday. He was more fortunate than some others in similar situations who were forced by circumstances to work to support the family. Instead, his siblings offered their support as long as he stayed in school and out of trouble.

“It was a good deal and it helped me make the right choices,” Reyes said.

The first order of business was enrolling at South Salem High School and trying out for the Saxon soccer team.

“I tell people I was born with a soccer ball, I’ve been playing since I was a little kid,” Reyes said. He shares his name with one of the great players on his favorite soccer team, Chivas of Guadalajara – it spawned his nickname, “Chava.”

At South, he met Eric Johanson, the head coach of the soccer program for the past 29 seasons. He might have been the most experienced player to try out for the team, but other barriers prevented a happy union.

“I cut him as a freshman. I think it’s probably one of my greatest regrets,” Johanson said. “The main reason I cut him was he spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish so we had a significant communication barrier. Fortunately, a year later, his English was a lot better even though my Spanish level hadn’t changed.”

Reyes’ impact on the team was immediate. The South program had been strong since its inception two years prior, but their performance spiked the year he joined the team.

“Sal was the most sophisticated player on the team, a leader and personable. Everyone liked being around him,” Johanson said.

By his junior year, everyone in the league knew him.

“I’d get triple-teamed. I would end up dishing the ball to everyone else. I didn’t get the goal, but we got the win and that was important,” Reyes said.

His teammates helped guide the trajectory of his life in more ways than they probably realized at the time. Many were not native U.S. citizens and the differing backgrounds meant the struggles they encountered adapting to American culture were the same at some levels. More than that, Reyes found that they looked to him for advice during practices and on the field.

“They would do what I told them and – sometimes – it would work, but they were listening,” Reyes said. He was picked for all-state teams in his junior and senior years. In 2008, Johanson made him the first, and so far only, inductee from a soccer team to the South Salem Hall of Fame.

He first met Brad Victor in his junior year. At the time, Victor was head coach of the Willamette University soccer team and scouting new recruits. Reyes was high on his list of wants, but Reyes viewed Willamette as beyond his grasp.

“He came by that first year handing out information packets and I waited until he left, but I threw them in the trash. I planned on going to college, but Willamette wasn’t it. There was no way it would be feasible,” Reyes said.

Victor knew Reyes was a talented player, but it was this story that hooked him.

“He ended up being a darn good person,” Victor said. “The type of person we wanted to have on the team.”

The following year, Victor took his pitch to another level. He met with Reyes’ family and explained how they could put the tuition cost within reach through a combination of grants, loans and a work-study program.

It was a big year for Reyes in many ways, he was too old to be adopted by his siblings and achieve citizenship by that means. Marriage was another route and he began talking with his then-girlfriend, Rosanna, about it.

“I told her the situation, but I also told her that if we got married, I didn’t want it to be because of the papers,” Reyes said.

The couple recently celebrated their 25th anniversary.

At Willamette, Reyes continued to excel at soccer, but Victor remembers off-the-field moments the most. Part of Reyes’ work-study program included lining the field and maintaining the dugout.

“He was there when we poured the concrete pad for the new dugout and his initials are still there,” Victor said. Reyes also became a friend and companion to Victor’s mother helping out around her home.

“The thing about Salvador was he always played about two feet taller and 50 pounds heavier than he was in real life, on or off the field,” Victor said.

When it came time to decide on a career, the answer was fairly obvious.

“I wanted to coach and teaching and coaching go hand-in-hand,” Reyes said.

Twenty-one years ago, he started as a physical education teacher at Bush Elementary School and he’s been there ever since. Physical education may have been his foot in the door, but it wasn’t long before colleagues discovered his in-room abilities.

Sylvia Rincon got to see him in action when he was her supervisor as site director for the Bush migrant summer program.

“I really got to know him differently as a teacher,” Rincon said. “He’s great in the classroom with kids.”

When school started back up the next year she recommended him to help teach the school’s English Language Development program.

In gym classes, Bush principal Michelle Halter, has often seen him go above and beyond the call of duty.

“He spends a lot of time working on character-building traits like rules, responsibilities and good sportsmanship,” Halter said. “He always has an extra moment to spend with his students.”

Rincon, who has taught all three of Reyes’ sons, Daniel, 18, Josh, 16, and Michael, 11, said he is the consummate role model for all the students at Bush.

“Sal respects the students and he demands respect. Even having been so sick, he still puts out so much energy and getting things ready and participating with the kids to motivate them,” Rincon said. “He teaches the kids there are no excuses. He’s going to make the best of what it is and facing his illness is part of that.”

His dependability is a hallmark and much-appreciated trait at the school.

“There have been so many times we’ve upset his P.E. classes because we needed the gym for something else and he’s never said, ‘no.’ He just makes it the best experience for his class,” Rincon said. Last week, colleagues at the school and throughout the district presented Reyes and his wife with a check for $1,400 and access to a time share so the couple could take the honeymoon they never had.

Throughout his career, soccer has been ever-present. He held the head coach position at McKay High School for several years and followed it up with assistant coaching positions at Blanchet and McNary high schools.

Miguel Camarena, head coach of the Celtic soccer program, knew Reyes long before he had the opportunity to acquire Reyes’ skills as part of his staff. The two met across the field when Camarena coached at Silverton and Reyes was at McKay.

“I saw the way he was coaching his team and liked it. I saw his knowledge of the game and the way he treats his players,” Camarena said.

Reyes took a break from coaching at Blanchet anticipating the opportunity to watch Daniel play as a Celtic, but Camarena saw it as an opportunity. Between Reyes, Camarena and former athletic director Mike Maghan the three came up with a plan that would allow Reyes to coach and still watch Daniel from the sidelines.

Camarena and Reyes also bonded over Chivas, their favorite team. At a preseason practice one year, Reyes came out in McNary shorts and shirt, but sporting a Chivas hat. When Camarena told him he’d forgotten his Celtic cap, Reyes produced it and put it on top of the Chivas one. Later in the the game, Camarena complained of being cold and Reyes stripped off his jersey revealing the Chivas jersey underneath. When Camarena asked if he had the complete Chivas outfit. Reyes replied, “Do you want to see my socks?”

Camarena was conducting soccer camps in July 2009 when he got a call from Reyes, saying he needed to talk. After the camp, he and Camarena met to talk about the reason behind the stomach aches he’d been suffering in the prior months – a cancerous stomach tumor.

Reyes coached through the season. He got to watch Daniel score a goal in a varsity game, but when the boys made it to the playoffs, Reyes was in the hospital preparing to undergo surgery that would remove 70 percent of his stomach.

Daniel played the last 15 minutes and two 10-minute overtimes in the playoff game against Roseburg that sent the boys to the quarterfinals. When Camarena called Reyes from the game to report their success, the boys sang “Ole Ole Ole” into the phone.

“That’s the thing about Chava,” Camarena said. “No matter what, he’s always been an excellent soccer player and, believe me, he can still play the game like he did in his 20s.”

The surgery went well, but this past summer, Reyes got the news that the cancer spread to his intestines and it was in Stage 4, the final stage.

Life is never fair, nobody ever claimed it was, but Reyes isn’t one to focus on the negative.

“It’s something I’ve talked about with my family. This news. I’m the most active, the most athletic and the most healthy of all ten of my siblings. It was a real shock, they just kept asking, ‘why you?’ There’s no use asking why because you’re never going to know. Let’s concentrate on what’s ahead and what’s important,” Reyes said.

If that’s the case, it’s fitting that this chapter of his story end the lessons he will leave behind someday: stay in school, go to college, live life properly so you enjoy it with no regrets. There’s another one, but he’s much too modest to put it into words: never underestimate the impact you have on the lives you touch.

Last year, after his original diagnosis, Reyes polled a group of his third grade students regarding their knowledge of cancer. He was surprised at how many hands shot up and then spoke about his own diagnosis.

As the students retreated to their other duties for the day, one came up to him and said he was going to become a doctor so no one ever had to get cancer again.

“If that’s what comes of this, then I have no regrets,” Reyes said.