Some athletes’ favorite high school sports memories are of hoisting a trophy, winning a big game or making a crucial play.
Jacob Munoz’s is simply getting back on the field and playing the game he loves.
As a seventh-grader in January 2015, Munoz was diagnosed with pre-B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was thought to be in remission two years later, but it returned, costing him his junior football season and very nearly his life.
After 11 rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant from his younger brother, Munoz started working back to normalcy.
This season, he returned to the playing field and suited up for the team that left his locker untouched throughout the process for his eventual return.
“It felt amazing just being back with my teammates, getting back on the field one last time,” Munoz said.
Now, after a 6-4 regular season, Klein Cain High School (Houston, Texas) is set to play the first playoff game in school history.
It appeared as if a comeback might not be possible for Munoz.
At least, that’s what his mother thought. After all the chemotherapy, doctors warned Yvette Munoz that Jacob might have a heart failure. Before undergoing tests that would determine whether he would be cleared to play, the two were shopping when he came across a pair of cleats he liked. It was heartbreaking for a mother who thought he’d never get to play in them.
“He saw some cleats he wanted for football, and I just started crying, thinking ‘Oh my God, he’s going to be let down again,’” Yvette remembers.
But Munoz was confident he’d be fine.
“He was like, ‘No, I’m going to get back on that field. My heart is fine.’ He believed it,” Yvette said. “And sure enough, when we went the following week, they did every test possible, and they said his heart was fine and they gave him the green light to play football.”
That was his same attitude as he went through chemotherapy. Munoz was determined to be in need of a bone marrow transplant in December 2017, but he wouldn’t be able to receive one unless he was cancer-free. Through 10 rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer persisted. Doctors said there was only one more attempt available before resorting to more drastic measures.
“He didn’t let it shake him. He’s just like, ‘No, I just need a little bit more. I just need a little more chemo. I just need a little bit more,’” Yvette said. “Every biopsy, they would come back and tell me that the cancer was still there. I would cry. And he would say, ‘It’s OK mom, I only need a little bit more. It’s OK. Next time. Next time. Next time.’”
Finally, next time came. Munoz told her he just needed one more. After the 11th cycle of chemo, he was cleared for the bone marrow transplant.
His brother, Christian, who was 11 at the time, had the only matching bone marrow available for transplant. He didn’t hesitate.
Despite their five-year age gap, the brothers are close. Younger siblings often try to emulate older brothers or sisters, and Christian was no exception. They play the same video games. They both play football. The ordeal only deepened their bond.
“He’s my best friend,” Jacob said. “I love that kid to death.”
In March 2018, Christian donated the bone marrow that helped save his brother’s life.
“He knew completely what was going to happen. He said that he wanted to save his brother’s life, because he was the only match,” Yvette said. “Whenever he had some (pain), he would cry, and he would say, ‘It’s OK, because I’m doing it for Jacob.’”
With the cancer behind him, Munoz began to work back toward his normal life. After spending time in a wheelchair, Munoz needed to regain strength in his body and re-learn how to run.
He said faith in God helped him progress through leukemia and the recovery process.
“Instead of thinking, like, ‘Why me?’ I was thinking ‘What’s in store for me? What’s the plan?” Munoz said.
His goal of returning to the football field remained. Leukemia had already taken his eighth grade season, and the recovery and training would take away his junior season as well.
But it’s not as if he had every truly been away. Munoz’s locker remained untouched. Teammates would Skype him for some team meetings, including one for a jersey vote. And when they’d visit him in the hospital, they’d bring his favorite meal: a Whataburger patty melt.
Whataburger even became aware of his story through Dave Campbell’s Texas Football “Unsung Hero” profile and gave him a $5,000 college scholarship. Munoz plans to attend the University of Houston to study law or physical therapy. He believes his battle and recovery, which included a period in a wheelchair, can help him connect and be a better therapist.
“While I was coming back, trying to get back into shape, I saw what a lot of people go through,” Munoz said. “Mentally, physically, trying to come back from injuries, I feel like I have a connection.”
Said Yvette, “(It’s) given him a new perspective on life. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff.”
On Oct. 18, Munoz made his return. He played in the 63-27 win over Klein Forest (Houston, Texas), and had two tackles, according to MaxPreps.
Klein Cain’s regular season has come to an end and the playoffs are set to begin Friday against Westfield (Houston, Texas). Win or lose, Munoz will be on the field.
And after all he went through, simply being there is what matters.