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Jun 24, 2008

Wizards' Onalfo a true survivor

September 15, 2007.

It was, as Curt Onalfo remembers it, one of those moments when time stood still. With his Kansas City Wizards down 2-1 to the Columbus Crew entering stoppage time, the season was seemingly on the line. Win, and his team would take a significant step forward in booking a trip to the postseason. Lose, and the Wizards' strong start -- 20 points in their first 10 games -- would be meaningless. But it was much more than just crunch time for the first-year coach. More than 13 years ago, Onalfo was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. He had come far and fast in his brief coaching career, turning Kansas City into a solid team after many preseason prognostications had the Wizards as outsiders come playoff time.

As he stood on the sidelines -- he can rarely sit on the bench -- Onalfo remembers things moving in slow motion. After taking an early lead against Columbus, the Crew pulled ahead with two second-half goals. The Wizards tried desperately to equalize for much of the second half. As the game entered stoppage time, Onalfo began to feel sorry for himself.

"I was sitting there, shaking my head," Onalfo said. "After all I had been through; I kept thinking, 'This can't be happening ... this just isn't fair.' I didn't want to accept it."

Then it happened.

As the clock turned toward stoppage time, Wizards midfielder Kerry Zavagnin carried the ball into the penalty box and was taken down by Crew midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi. Eddie Johnson converted the penalty kick. All of a sudden, there was a smile on Onalfo's face.

Then it happened again.

Moments removed from his penalty kick, Johnson played the ball wide to Eloy Colombano, who sent a perfect cross into the box for Scott Sealy to score. Within the blink of an eye, the Wizards, moments removed from a long offseason, were taking a step toward the playoffs. They had survived -- something their coach knows a thing or two about.

Onalfo is somber about the whole experience that has shaped his life. It was two days before his 24th birthday and he was coming off the 1992 Olympics, where he captained the U.S. team. Many saw Onalfo as a natural selection for the U.S. World Cup team for 1994. Sitting in a doctor's office, he learned that he had played in the summer games with an Achilles that was torn nearly 85 percent. But still, something wasn't quite right.

"I come from a family where we think we're doctors," Onalfo said. "I didn't think much of it."

After blood tests, Onalfo had a sense something was wrong. He sat in a different doctor's office this time, waiting for what was an uncomfortable amount of time before the doctor advised him to call his mother. He was told that he had a serious form of cancer.

Hodgkin's disease attacks the lymph nodes and can spread quickly. While the cure rate is high, it is still a deadly disease. Patients can experience extreme pain, fevers and fatigue. At age 24 and coming off an incredible summer, Onalfo wasn't supposed to battle this. But in typical fashion, Onalfo took the challenge head on.

"My initial reaction was that I was scared. I thought this was it, I thought I was done," Onalfo said. "I had lived in my 24 years more than most people live in a lifetime. I traveled and had great experiences. I received the diagnosis, then I got ready to fight."

It was that determination, coupled with the efforts of his father, mother and older brother, that got Onalfo through the most grueling game of his life. After his condition was termed "advanced cancer" by his doctor, he went through intense chemotherapy for six months. Just as progress was being made, just as he felt that he had turned the corner and had kicked cancer out of his life, it happened.

"At the end, I was very sick," he said. "I nearly died. My white blood cells were low from all I was going through with my treatments. I wasn't supposed to have visitors. I just lied there -- nothing I could do."

His voice can trail off now, because Onalfo is a survivor. He was tested every six months to see if his cancer had come back. After five years of clean reports, he is considered cured. He had one believer all along.

"The immediate reaction of my mother was to ask the doctor if I could have children," he remembered. "Her immediate thoughts weren't about whether I could survive. Failing wasn't even an option."

Now, Onalfo has proof that he hasn't failed. With two children, Christian and Gabriela, he and his wife, Sandra, are living a dream in Kansas City and are busy creating a home. When he was diagnosed more than a decade ago, he was told he would not be able to have children. He remembers that first pregnancy well.

"The whole pregnancy, I kept thinking, 'I hope he is healthy,'" Onalfo said, remembering his doctor's warning that because of his fight with Hodgkin's disease, there might be complications. "When he was born, I kept screaming, 'He is perfect -- he is perfect!' I kept counting his fingers and toes, over and over again."

Those who know Onalfo best know he's a fighter on and off the field. Onalfo readily admits that, even before he was diagnosed with cancer, there were doubters who didn't think he was good enough to perform at a high level. He was told he wasn't fast or good enough. That never stopped Onalfo who featured for the U.S. national team on both youth and senior levels. In addition to the Olympics, he co-captained the U.S. U-20 national team in the 1989 FIFA World Youth Championship and the gold-medal-winning team of the 1991 Pan American Games.

"First and foremost, he is just a very good person," noted Bruce Arena, who coached Onalfo at the University of Virginia and tabbed him as an assistant coach for the U.S. national team between 2002-06. "You rarely come across quality people like Curt."

Arena is one of the few people who has seen Onalfo before and after his fight with cancer. He terms the battle as "life-changing," but is quick to point out that Onalfo, as a person, has not changed.

"He is the same person that he was before all this, which is to say that he is a terrific person," said Arena. "He's a fighter, on and off the field. He always was, and he still is."

Onalfo's tenacity is legendary. Many don't know he played in Mexico (with Tampico Madero in 1995-96) before leaving to help pioneer Major League Soccer in 1996 as a draft pick of the L.A. Galaxy. He remembers that at every level, whether as a youth in Connecticut, playing for Virginia or with the Olympic team, he had his doubters. He was considered too slow by some and not skilled enough by others. Onalfo, however, had the respect of his teammates.

"In the early '90s, we played together on the U-23 national team and we toured all over Central America," said Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas, a former teammate of Onalfo. "We used to pull an offside trap and the signal was to scream, 'Más pan!' before a free kick. When we traveled to France to play in the Toulon tournament, Curt insisted that we change it to, 'Plus de pain.' You gotta love a guy that thinks that way."

Even today, it is difficult for Onalfo to talk about the pain he suffered through.

"I never wanted people to look at me and feel sorry," Onalfo said. "I didn't want people looking at me a certain way because of this. I wanted them to judge me for who I am, not some disease I had."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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