Campus Life


Campus Life this month is the story of walk on player Joe Recendez.

By Avani Patel Tribune Staff Writer

November 8, 2000

He was shaken out of his reverie by his wife's insistent nudge.

"I was kind of starting to doze a little," Joe Recendez Sr. recalled, "and my wife said, 'Joe, I think that's Joey. I think Joey's in the game.'"

The kid who reinforced his childhood allegiance to Notre Dame by showering with Irish Spring soap had grown up to take the field in a Fighting Irish uniform. And the father, whose own love for Notre Dame ran so deep that he had sold the family's South Holland home to ensure that his only son could afford to go to school there, couldn't have been prouder.

"That was unbelievable," Recendez said of his namesake's efforts during Notre Dame's 45-14 victory over Navy Oct. 14 in Orlando. The younger Joe Recendez, a tight end, didn't make any memorable plays or catch any critical passes in the 108 seconds he was on the field. That he was playing at all, however, might be considered a minor miracle.

Five months earlier, much more than Recendez's football future had been thrown into doubt. On that May afternoon, Recendez went for a run after finishing his last final exam of the year that morning. The former Mt. Carmel football player prided himself on his work ethic and stayed in such good shape that his body fat was 6 percent. But that afternoon workout wiped him out.

"I just didn't feel right. I felt some pain, tenderness," Recendez recalled. "And I was in the shower thinking I can either go take a nap since I had just pulled an all-nighter or I could go see the doctor just to make sure everything's OK. Right there I decided to go get checked out."

Though he didn't know it at the time, Recendez, a three-year walk-on, had performed well enough in spring practice to earn a football scholarship for his final season at Notre Dame. But going to the doctor that afternoon might have been Recendez's smartest move of the season.

Within four days he would be in the hospital, undergoing surgery to remove a tumor that doctors attributed to testicular cancer. The same disease that struck two-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, testicular cancer is among the most common forms of cancer to strike young men.

"We were devastated," his father said. "How can somebody be so healthy and so strong and get sick? This isn't fair for someone who's so young, and has to think about this kind of stuff. The one thing I always had in the back of my mind, reading about [former Phillies star] John Kruk, was how testicular cancer was highly curable. I had a lot of faith, a lot of hope and
confidence. I just knew that if we caught it early enough he had a fighting chance."

The family would have to hold fast to that faith because they would have to wait four days, until the day of Recendez's surgery, for confirmation that the cancer hadn't spread.

After the surgery, Recendez returned to the Chicago area from South Bend to recover. It wasn't a long stay.

"We wanted him home with us so bad," his father said. "We wanted to baby him and nurse him and wait on him hand and foot, and he just wasn't going to have it."

Recendez had no intention of spending a summer sitting around at home. Summer football drills were about to start and he planned on taking part, even as he was undergoing radiation treatment to wipe out any remaining vestiges of the cancer.

Recendez had hoped to spend the summer bulking up, adding between 20 and 25 pounds to his 215-pound frame. But the radiation left him nauseated much of the time, unable to keep food down. He subsisted mainly on crackers.

"I was down to 205 a couple of weeks after surgery and I never got it back," he said.

Still, he worked out every day, doing a modified routine. To teammates who asked, he explained why he wasn't going full speed. He did not tell the whole team about his illness.

"I didn't mind talking about it. I just didn't want to put it on anyone," he said.

"Sick as a dog, under medication, but he never complained—he never said anything," offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said.

Said Frank Lenti, Recendez's high school coach at Mt. Carmel: "You're surprised anybody can do that. All he has ever done is continue to beat the odds."

Bob Chmiel, Notre Dame's coordinator of football operations and a fellow Catholic Leaguer who played and coached at Fenwick, agreed. Chmiel is in charge of walk-ons.

"When Joe came in here you could see that he had great character and would be good for our program," he said.

Chmiel's reaction to Recendez's illness?

"I did a lot of praying for Joe," he said. "He's one of our guys."

The prayers, thus far, have been answered. Recendez's first follow-up blood test, taken around the time of Notre Dame's game against Texas A&M, came back negative. The results of the second blood test, taken last week, are expected in the next couple of days.

"The first few years I have to go every few months, then it starts spreading out," Recendez said. "But I guess I have to get checked up for a long part of my life.

"I'm still not back where I want to be. Coming out of the spring, I expected a lot more out of me. I think other people did, too, so that has been the worst part."

Coach Bob Davie said Recendez need not worry about letting anyone down.

"I'm still amazed," Davie said. "He'd be the first to tell you that not every day is a good day. It's still a day-to-day situation as far as how he feels because of some of the medications he takes."

Having healthy days to look forward to, however, has been a gift, Recendez's father said. After his graduation next spring, Joe plans to go to law school. His first choice, befitting someone who turned down a generous financial aid package from Princeton to walk on at South Bend, is Notre Dame. But first he is hoping to see his team play in a season-ending Bowl Championship Series game. With the Irish (6-2) now ranked among the top 12 in both major polls, that scenario is becoming more and more likely.

"Everything is in our own hands now," his father said. "All we have to do is win our last three games."

Whether Recendez will log any more playing time the last three games remains to be seen. But when the Irish play their final home game of the season Saturday against Boston College, Joe and Sandy Recendez will be in the stands, as they've been all season.

"We didn't care if he ever played football again as long as he's well," Joe said. "We've been proud of him since the day he was born."


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