Soccer Saved My Life

Santonio “Tony” Blakely started playing soccer when he was 4 years old. From an early age he showed a lot of natural ability. That natural ability developed into a talent and love for the game. Tony was always one of the best players on his recreational soccer team. He was easy to coach and showed his love for the game in everything he did.

In the Spring of 2021, HTRSA held tryouts for their competitive soccer program Hamilton Soccer Club. He was 7 years old and selected to play for their new team. Tony’s team excelled and Tony was a key contributor. On a hot day in August at practice in 2022, Tony started to feel a headache coming on during warm-ups. The headache got worse, and his coach told him to get water, take it easy, and rest. During practice Tony’s speech started to slur and he was having trouble moving. His parents rushed him to the hospital where they received shocking news that their son was suffering from bleeding on his brain. Tony had suffered a stroke caused by the rupture of an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in the right frontal lobe of his brain.

Tony was airlifted to RWJ University Hospital in New Brunswick and underwent an emergency craniotomy to open his skull and endured more than seven hours of surgery on his brain to repair the damage caused by the AVM rupture.

After his surgery, Tony was transferred to the Children’s Specialized Hospital at RWJ for inpatient treatment. There was still a long road to recovery; Tony went from playing soccer every day to not being able to hold his head up on his own. For the next several months Tony braved through Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Neuro Psych Therapy, Aquatic Therapy, Rec Therapy, Neuro Vision Therapy, and Mental Health Therapy. He had a goal in mind, he wanted to be able to run and play soccer again.

“It was extremely nerve-wracking watching our son struggle to do things that were once very easy for him,” said Tony’s mother, Damaris.

“As a very active kid, being unable to stand or walk was a huge obstacle for Tony. His biggest goal was to be able to run again. “After surgery, Tony was unable to hold his head up or sit up on his own; he also was struggling to stand and walk,” added Damaris.

“When Tony was first hospitalized, I felt crushed, hurt, broken down, and scared that there was a chance that we could lose our son,” said Tony’s father, Shawn. “My hope for Tony is that he can get back to who he was before the AVM rupture.”

Soccer became Tony’s guiding light; it was his reason to persevere through the difficult times where he felt depressed that he could not do what he once could.

“I was sad because I was unable to do simple everyday things like sit up on my own or hold my head up and was missing playing soccer,” said Tony. “My goal while in the hospital was to be able to run again, and every day I kept fighting to build my strength. I had to relearn to do everything all over again and felt like I was a toddler when I’m not a toddler.”

Tony’s journey was long and arduous. He persevered from that August practice in 2022 to being cleared to return to soccer in the Fall of 2023. This past fall Tony rejoined the Hamilton Soccer Club and helped his team, the Renegades, win the MOSA Curci Cup, win their flight, win the Mt. Laurel Columbus Day Tournament, and helped his team gain promotion to the MOSA Premier flight.

Tony’s journey has been recognized by New Jersey Youth Soccer (NJYS) when they awarded him the 2023 NJYS Comeback Player of the Year Presented by JAG Physical Therapy at the annual NJYS award dinner.

Tony’s current coach Frank Bisanzio had this to say about Tony, “Tony is a true inspiration. He and his family experienced something extremely traumatic. This major life event would have tested the nerve of any person at any age. In all honesty, I did not expect to see the kind of progression as a player that he achieved. His calmness on the field and smooth ball handling amazed us all year. His fearlessness and physical presence was a major key on defense. Tony and his family deserve as much acknowledgement as possible!”

“I am proud to have been able to succeed in all my therapies and accomplishing my goal to run and play soccer again… I now cherish every moment in life and do not take life for granted since I almost lost my life. In a way soccer saved my life.” proclaimed Tony in letter to NJYS about why he is deserving of the award.

We at HTRSA and Hamilton Soccer Club could not be more proud of Tony. He is the embodiment of what we strive for in our organization, on our teams, and in our daily lives. He showed us what it means to be brave and not crumble in the face of adversity.

As you visit the HTRSA complex, there is a good chance you may see Tony playing there. He is participating in the HTRSA rec soccer season and the HSC travel program. You can be certain that he will have a smile on his face, and you will know that he is loving every moment on the field.