A few days before Christmas, I got a message that asked: Did you know Lezo?
I froze. It wasn’t “do you know?” It was “did you know?”
It was the worst news.
I did not know Lezo Urreiztieta, but I knew his name. I knew he was the 2011 state champion in the 110 hurdles at Canyon del Oro. I knew that he was part of the UA’s shiny new marketing campaign, posing at Bear Down Field with basketball’s Kaleb Tarczewski, football’s Chris Putton and College World Series baseball star James Farris.
I knew the name Urreiztieta because Lezo’s uncle, Arizeder Urreiztieta, was once a skilled music writer at the Star. So when Lezo’s name popped up on my twitter feed a few months ago, I was flattered.
He wrote that he had broken his foot and would not be able to compete for the Wildcats this year. He took a photograph of the screw that once held his broken bones together.
“Forget the bad days,” he wrote. “Think about the good times.”
I never did meet Lezo Urreiztieta, but I would read his twitter messages and soon it spilled over to his Facebook page.
Here’s the kind of young man he was: He posted a photograph of his grandmother’s hands and wrote, “I love my grandma so much. So much wisdom is in her old hands. I’m blessed to still have her here.”
And now someone was asking me about Lezo in the past tense.
I was told that Lezo died while undergoing brain surgery last weekend but that only UA coach Fred Harvey could confirm the awful news. I looked at the phone for what seemed forever before making the call.
“I love Lezo like a son,” Harvey said. “I was at the surgery center at 6 in the morning and was able to
see him. I wanted him to know we would be there for him. We expected good news.”
Harvey cried. He’d try to talk about Lezo and then he would stop and cry some more.
“Lezo didn’t party,” he said. “He was such a good and responsible young man. When I made a recruiting visit to his home, he wasn’t sure if he had what it took to become a Pac-12 hurdler. He was committed to being an academician first. But once he made a commitment to be a Division I athlete, he was all in. He was going to be very good.”
At a celebration of Lezo’s life Thursday, the foyer and two large rooms at the chapel were full, shoulder to shoulder, at 5:25 p.m. And yet the “celebration” wasn’t scheduled to begin until 5:30. The parking area was overflowing, a testament to his engaging personality.
“He was a young man who smiled, upbeat,” said Harvey. “It was infectious.”
But Thursday’s “celebration” wasn’t a celebration at all. It was far too sad for that. No matter how the happy video of Lezo’s young life played on the chapel’s small screen, the full realization was that he was only 20 years old when he died last week.
“He had a lot of large plans,” his brother, Gaizka, said at a Candlelight Vigil on Sunday night at the UA. “He wanted to possibly be a neurosurgeon or a plastic surgeon. He wanted to save lives.”
At the funeral home on Thursday, Lezo’s family displayed a doctor’s white lab coat and a stethoscope. This past summer, as part of his work toward a medical career, Lezo attended a series of surgeries at the hospital, observing, taking notes and getting traction. He was going to be a hurdler now, but his real mission was to someday put on that white lab coat.
To cap the UA’s fall track and field season, Harvey stages an annual Red, White and Blue Meet, in which the men’s and women’s teams compete against one another, a tradition that has grown into an anticipated weekend with bragging rights at stake.
This year, limited by a hamstring injury, Lezo wasn’t able to run the hurdles,, but he didn’t want to merely be a spectator. So he toted a camera around Drachman Stadium and was the day’s videographer.
“He made it fun,” Harvey said. “He’s one of the reasons I enjoy being a coach.”
A few weeks before he died, Lezo posted a photograph of his mother and father, Melissa and Izaro, and his brother on his Facebook page. Lezo stood next to them wearing his UA letterman’s jacket. You can see the pride on his face.
He wrote: “People come and go in life, but no matter what I know, these three people will always be there and love me.”
I did not know Lezo Urreiztieta, and yet I sit here with tears in my eyes, wishing I had.