His blue Arizona Wildcats No. 13 basketball jersey hangs down to his knees. The white undershirt falls loosely off his arms. His blue and red UA hat masks the scar on the top of his head.
Andrew Valdez weighs barely 80 pounds, and he isn’t hungry.
The food comes, but he can’t quite muster the strength to eat his muffu-
Andrew was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 3 months old and has been in and out of the hospital for his entire life. He has had more than 30 kidney stones removed from his body, has been diagnosed with diabetes and has searched for a doctor who would tell him he was a candidate for a lung transplant.
He calls being in the hospital “like being in prison” and is still grieving over the death of his mother three years ago.
Life for Andrew, an 18-year-old Tucson native, has been unfairly cruel.
But he proudly wears his Arizona gear for a reason: The Wildcats have made his life better.
Andrew has posed for pictures with Lute Olson, has played video games with UA football players and has talked about helmets with Ka’Deem Carey. He stood in the first row for three-plus hours in the rain and cold to watch his favorite team upset Oregon at Arizona Stadium last year and fell to his knees in his living room when Nick Johnson couldn’t get off a last-second shot against Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.
“Every game, every sport, we’re in our living room watching the Wildcats,” Andrew said. “I have to keep my dad up for the late games, but we watch them all.
“When I was 10, I went to my first football game and they played Washington. The energy of the crowd is what made me like it so much. Everyone was jumping around and yelling. That’s when I really got into sports.”
• • •
Andrew’s love of UA sports has intensified, if that’s even possible, over the past year. Before the 2013 football season, he struck up a friendship with a pair of UA players, kicker Jake Smith and running back Kylan Butler.
Smith and Butler helped launch the Arizona chapter of Uplifting Athletes, an organization that lines up college football teams with rare diseases. The two players picked cystic fibrosis, in part because of their relationship with Andrew.
Before every home football game, select UA players visit Diamond Children’s Hospital and meet different patients. Smith and Butler remembered interacting with Andrew on a few of their trips, and cystic fibrosis was already close to their hearts. It helped that Andrew’s dad, Art, worked on the UA campus.
Smith and Butler took a liking to Andrew and started communicating with him on Facebook. Soon enough, they visited Andrew at his home, took him on a tour of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility and introduced him to all of their teammates.
Simply making the trips was hard on his frail body. Cystic fibrosis makes the easiest things hard. The rare genetic disease affects the lungs and digestive system, and a defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that can clog the lungs and/or obstruct the pancreas.
One thing it hasn’t affected is Andrew’s big heart.
“The main thing is, he’s just a great guy,” Butler said. “Despite his condition, he’s not down in the dumps, and he always has a great attitude. When he came out to the Oregon game and it was all cold, it hurt his condition and he ended up in the hospital two days later. But he wanted to be out there. We take stuff like that for granted and he’s taught us to be grateful for everything we have.”
When Andrew’s post-
Oregon hospital stay carried into Thanksgiving, the Wildcats came through. Smith and Butler visited the hospital and spent part of their holiday with the Valdez family.
The small gesture made a big difference.
“Before this relationship was developed with those guys, he was in a rut,” Art Valdez said. “He was not feeling good. He was down. He wasn’t doing his breathing treatments. Frankly, he was very depressed. Once we got the players involved and he started talking and Facebooking with them, a lot changed.
“They treat him like a brother and come in and hang out with him and talk to him. It makes me feel special that they are able to do that for my son.”
• • •
This is the time of year when Andrew needs his Arizona football friends the most.
Summers are no fun.
Not only does he not have any Arizona basketball or football to watch, the heat irritates his cystic fibrosis. He can’t spend any extended time outside without running a fever. Breathing, an already difficult chore, becomes even harder in the warm temperatures.
“Seeing that he can’t go out and do things like other kids do; I know it hurts him, and it hurts me,” Art said. “I wish he could be able to do those things without oxygen or go out in the heat. It sucks. But I look at him, and he’s got a great attitude.
“We’ve been by his side the whole time, and he makes it easy to be there.”
Since striking up the friendship with Butler, Smith and other Wildcats, Andrew’s health has improved.
He no longer fights his dad about taking his medicine, about going through his four breathing treatments a day or about having to wear an inflatable vest at night to help his breathing and thin his mucus buildup.
Andrew hasn’t been hospitalized since March.
“I like being around those guys,” Andrew said. “They make me feel better and keep my spirits up.”
The Arizona football team entered Andrew’s life at the perfect time. Not only was he still dealing with the loss of his mother, he had just been told by doctors in Tucson that he would not qualify for a lung transplant.
Andrew is used to bad days; still, being denied was crushing.
“I was just like, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Andrew said. “It made me so depressed. I didn’t know what was next.”
Art added: “I’ve never seen him more sad in his life. He just walked out of that office and didn’t look back and walked straight away. It was very sad. It really hurt him.”
Shortly after that though, Andrew and Art met with a specialist in Phoenix who offered an alternative in the form of a series of shots.
With renewed hope, Andrew has turned a lot of his focus to helping others with cystic fibrosis.
That’s why today is so important.
He’ll be at Lowell-Stevens Football Facility at 8 this morning to watch the UA players participate in a fundraising event called “Lift for Life.” Arizona’s football team has spent the past few weeks raising money for cystic fibrosis research. Today, they’ll face off in a conditioning and weightlifting competition, with the winners — the team will be split into eight groups — earning a day off from conditioning.
Andrew will be there to cheer on his new friends.
“He never wants it to be about him,” Art said. “He always wants to know what he can do to help others with CF and help educate. That’s just who he is.”
Today will undoubtedly be a good day for Andrew. And, as he’s learning, sometimes the bad days turn into good ones.
Take the sandwich. After not touching his muffuletta at lunch, Andrew went home, rested — and eventually devoured it.
Eighty pounds and getting stronger.