Zach Irelan was an up-and-coming Glendale (Ariz.) Independence High football player, who had a dream of playing college football.
Then, just as life couldn’t get better, Irelan was blindsided by bone cancer.
Osteosarcoma has attacked his body since 2013.
Irelan, who turns 19 next month, has gone through intense chemotherapy. He missed the second semester of his junior year and all of his senior year because his immune system was too weak by the chemo. He has had three lung surgeries. He had his left arm and part of his collarbone amputated. With cancer now in most of his bones, he is undergoing immunotherapy.
And he keeps fighting.
Irelan was a 6-foot, 230-pound starting junior defensive lineman in 2013 before he began to feel run down.
“He was battling some stuff,” coach Santiago Maldonado said. “We thought he had mono. He felt sluggish after practice.”
Irelan’s Facebook page “Zach’s Defensive Line Against Osteosarcoma” has more than 17,000 followers. He also did a calendar to fight against osteosarcoma. He has had Cardinals players reach out to him. NFL defensive back Prince Amukamara, who had the same Pop Warner coach as Zach, spent a day with him.
“He is an absolutely amazing person,” said Marlo Irelan, his mom. “He’s just happy.”
He formed an immediate bond with Favon Irelan in the fourth grade. They played Pop Warner football together.
Favon sought stability in his life, and Marlo eventually legally adopted Favon, who went on to football and track stardom at Independence.
When Zach’s shoulder started bothering him late in the 2013 football season, Zach was taken to doctors. He was finally diagnosed Dec.18, 2013 with bone cancer.
He missed his senior season in 2014 while undergoing chemo, although he pleaded to the coach to be on the field somehow, even as a kicker. He got to be honorary captain for the last game, walking out to the pregame coin flip with Favon, who played safety and quarterback.
“Favon is having a really hard time with this,” Marlo said.
Independence High has been supportive, Marlo said. The football team has done fund raisers for him.
Marlo, who lost her job in Paradise Valley because she was missing so much time taking care of Zach through this ordeal, now makes $13 an hour at a call center. But she said she may have to take leave of absence in the next few weeks with Zach’s condition worsening.
Family friend Jolie Dill started a gofundme account to help the family with mounting medical bills.
Favon, now 20, is always around, keeping Zach’s spirits up.
“I try to tell him everything happens for a reason,” Favon said. “God wouldn’t give him an obstacle he couldn’t overcome. There’s a greater purpose.”
There have been end-of-chemo parties, only to be undercut by another scan that showed cancer has returned. It is in his legs, arm, pelvis, collarbone, spine and jawbone.
Still, Zach’s strength and positive attitude shows up.
His dream was to start a foundation similar to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to raise money to find a cure. Marlo said that Zach had promised a friend who was battling osteosarcoma before he died in December 2014.
“He asked me how I felt, and I said, ‘How do you feel?’ ” Marlo said. “He said, ‘I’m not real happy about it, but we’ve done everything they told us to do. I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to leave you guys.’ ”