He survived a bout with cancer as a young child, which left him legally blind in one eye, but AJ Mercurio has persevered, all the way to earning a Division I college scholarship in lacrosse.
Of course, it helps that he is an athletic 6-foot-3, 215-pounder, and has been playing lacrosse since he was young.
“For anyone that has seen him play, they would not believe that he is doing the things he does with only one functional eye,” his father, Chris Mercurio, said. “He doesn’t know any different. He never let it be a handicap. That’s how he lived his life.”
Mercurio, a senior at Damonte Ranch (Reno, Nev.), has signed to play lacrosse for Denver in the fall. There, he will join Galena graduate TJ Wright, who is a sophomore, making Mercurio just the second DI college lacrosse player from Northern Nevada.
Mercurio was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH) when he was 15 months old. LCH affected the mastoid behind his ear, which caused the loss of vision in his left eye, something doctors noticed at an early eye exam.
The LCH also paralyzed the left side of his face, which slightly affects his smile.
A lot of being good at lacrosse is hand-eye coordination, in addition to athleticism.
Mercurio is lacking a big part of that equation. But, no matter, he is one of the top players in Northern Nevada.
“I think I’ve adapted really well to my circumstances,” he said. “I pick up new tricks to help me and make sure I stay focused on what I’m looking at and how people react.”
He started playing lacrosse at age 6, when he lived on the East Coast, and said extensive time playing the sport as child is paying off now.
After he was first diagnosed with cancer he had four surgeries and had his mastoid removed. He had a port installed on his chest for chemotherapy, of which he had five rounds when he was 2.
Mercurio, 18, does not remember going through the cancer therapy or treatment, but his father thinks it had a subliminal effect on his son.
He said AJ is a fighter and does not let himself get down or get rattled on the field, likely a result of his battle with cancer.
“It’s in his character. He doesn’t let things bother him, probably just knowing there are other things that can happen that are worse,” Chris Mercurio said.
AJ said being good at lacrosse, like most things, takes dedication and constant practice.
He thought for a minute before trying to explain why he is excelling at lacrosse.
“You need to be at every practice, you need to always have your stick in your hand. You need to be quick laterally. You’ve got to be quick straightforward, have stick skills in both hands,” he said.
He has a clean bill of health now.
In 10 games for Damonte, he has 31 goals, 15 assists, 112 ground balls, and was named defensive MVP of a game nine times, by opposing coaches and named offensive MVP three times, also by opposing coaches.
Chris Mercurio said those are video game numbers for most lacrosse players, but unusual coming from a defenseman, who generally do not have the ability or opportunity to produce at that level.
He started playing defenseman at age 6, when the family lived in Maryland, because his coach told he him he was late learning the game. Most players there start at age 3 or 4 and move to the offensive side.
Defenseman is where inexperienced players are placed until they learn the game.
Defensemen use longer lacrosse sticks than offensive players.
AJ Mercurio, who has also played on the Damonte football and basketball teams, was on the path to be an elite defenseman on the East Coast when he moved to Reno in the seventh grade. He practiced and played at the high school level and traveled to San Francisco every weekend to compete with the elite players.
He has been the Damonte Ranch varsity captain each year since ninth grade and was named first-team all-state and all-league each year.
“There’s no words to explain how grateful and happy I am to be going to a great school that was one of my No. 1 choices for a long time,” he said.