The Cholla wrestling team likes to keep things loose, and that starts with head coach Robert Soza-Villanueva and Mike Hensley, his assistant.
One time, a set of parents put “FOR SALE” signs on Hensley’s truck, with his phone number. In retaliation, Hensley told them their son would not be wrestling because he didn’t make weight. He almost fooled them.
“We have a different style of getting things done,” Soza-Villanueva said, “but it works.”
In August, just before the preseason, and a few days before school started, Soza-Villanueva sat the team down. Hensley, too. There was bad news.
He had kidney cancer.
“Honestly,” Hensley said, “I thought he was messing with us.”
“That was pretty tragic,” said Rafael Pacheco, a senior Cholla wrestler. “I’ve known him since I was in sixth grade, so just hearing that about someone that is so close to you, it’s crazy.”
It started in August, when Soza-Villanueva — a UA grad in his 10th year as Cholla’s coach — felt a pain under his pelvic area while mountain biking.
A doctor prescribed him antibiotics. After those didn’t work, he went to Northwest Hospital, but the waiting room was so packed that Soza-Villanueva, with a 103-degree fever, couldn’t wait, so he and his wife drove to the Oro Valley hospital.
On a CT scan, the doctor was supposed to examine the pelvic area and below it but accidentally ran it higher.
“Because he did that,” Soza-Villanueva said, “they found a tumor sitting on top of my kidney.”
Here’s how the rest of that discovery went for Soza-Villanueva. Soza-
Villanueva wound up missing only the preseason recovering from surgery, and recently returned to a full-workout regimen.
The Chargers are hosting the Cholla Duals Wrestling Tournament today and Saturday, both days starting at 9 a.m. The tournament includes 16 schools, including seven from Southern Arizona and others from the Phoenix area, Texas and California. The Star talked to Soza-Villanueva on Thursday about his trials. Here’s what he said:
On how he found out: “The doctor comes in and says, ‘I was staring at this for about a hour, half an hour, and I gotta tell you, I think it’s cancer. You’re young, it’s at an early stage, you’re very fit. If it doesn’t come back within the first five years, you’re OK.’
On his reaction: “For two, three minutes, I was just freaking out. But then I stopped and asked him, ‘What do I have to do?’ ”
On the recovery: “He said, ‘You’re gonna recover from this surgery, then we’re gonna go back after four weeks and see what it is.’ Sure enough, it was cancer. Depending on how big the tumor was, I could’ve lost my kidney, I could’ve lost my spleen and an adrenal gland. Only thing I lost was an adrenal gland. He carved the tumor, and I still have 60 percent use of my kidney. Out of the worst situation, I got the best out of it. Didn’t have to do any chemotherapy, no medicine or radiation. Every six months I gotta get a CT scan. In the next five years, if it doesn’t come back, it doesn’t come back at all.”
On the team’s reaction and coming back: “They came and said, ‘Hey, Coach, we got your back, you’re gonna be OK. We’re gonna be there for you if you need anything.’ That made me feel OK. After they did that, I was at home resting, couldn’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for six weeks. That day I told my wife, ‘I’m back, I’m going.’ She wanted me to rest a little bit more, but I couldn’t. When I came back we were in full force.”