COSTA MESA — There was a face missing among the football players/workers during the inaugural Battle of the Brush clean-up at Canyon Park Saturday.
When his name was brought up, the faces that were there turned sad.
Carlos Vazquez of Costa Mesa High couldn't be with his teammates, as they joined forces with Estancia for a day to landscape the park. He has more going on in his life. On Monday, Vazquez was diagnosed with leukemia, Costa Mesa Coach Jeremy Osso said.
It's been an emotional week for the Mustangs. Still, they capped the week with some community service, as they worked with their rivals.
"I was just devastated," said Tyler Biggs, a Costa Mesa football player and a friend of Vazquez. "I cried and everything. It was the worst thing I could ever hear."
Last week during spring practices, Vazquez experienced fatigue, Osso said. Vazquez, who will be a senior in the fall, woke up Monday with pain in his jaw and he also noticed some sort of rash break out on his skin, Osso said. He went to his doctor and was sent to Children's Hospital of Orange County, where he was diagnosed with leukemia.
He's gone through his first round of chemotherapy and is expected to be released from the hospital on Wednesday.
"It's been a tough week," Osso said. "Keeping the kids focused and trying to deal with it yourself is never easy. We've had some good talks about it. Carlos is a strong kid and there's no doubt in my mind or the rest of the kids' minds that's he's going to be OK and that he's going to fight it and beat it."
Osso said the 5-foot-6, 170-pound Vazquez is known as the Mustangs' toughest player who doesn't back down from anyone. He played as a noseguard in his junior season. He was moved to linebacker in the final game when he recorded 11 tackles. He was expected to play linebacker and fullback for Costa Mesa this season.
Costa Mesa's football team is doing its best to support Vazquez, who is passionate about the game. He was not available for an interview Saturday as he continues to regain his health.
"When we do our break as a team, we all say, 'Los,' for him," said Ryan Barnett, another teammate.
Barnett's like a brother to Vazquez, who lived with Barnett for about year, until moving back with his mother last month.
They've all done so much together. Saturday was supposed to be another opportunity to hang out. Vazquez was in the Mustangs' hearts and thoughts as they went to work with their rivals at Canyon Park. There was no rivalry here, only two teams becoming one. The players impressed their coaches and city workers with their ability to work together.
Even the Estancia cheerleaders were there to help, passing out water and picking up here and there when needed.
The boys spruced up the monument sign for the park, cleared debris along the drive path to the parking lot and spread mulch. Then they all scarfed down on some pizza. The food and the tools were provided by the city's public services.
The players and cheerleaders arrived just before 8 a.m. and worked for about five hours. There were 101 from Estancia and Costa Mesa, said Steve Mensinger, the Estancia booster president.
He welcomed the young workers with a brief speech about how they are all for Costa Mesa the city. When the Battle for the Bell is not being played, they should root for each other and encourage each other, he told them.
"Today we are working together," Mensinger said. "This is about our city and our community. It was fun seeing them work together."
There was no pushing and shoving, only raking and shoveling.
"I don't worry about that kind of stuff," said Estancia Coach Mike Bargas, referring to bickering or fighting.
Bargas and Osso both said their teams perform community service. But this was the first time the teams came together to work as one.
Next week they'll do it again. At the Costa Mesa Farm Complex, the football players are going to plant new sod, which was paid for by Costa Mesa AYSO, said Tom Hatch, the assistant city manager.
Hatch, who is also a Mustangs booster, noted the intensity of the rivalry, which made Saturday so special. He said the event enhanced the Battle for the Bell.
The players were on board to help.
"At first it was shaky because that's our rival school," Estancia running back Robert Murtha said. "But we talked to them and we learned to work together as a team. Even though we are rival schools we can still come together and help the city and our community."
Teamwork, camaraderie and support are values that have hit close to home for the Mustangs. They have drawn closer, as they have dedicated their season to Vazquez. They plan to wear helmet decals and many will shave their heads.
Barnett's younger brother, Kyle, started a Facebook page, "Showing our love for Carlos Vazquez," which has over 300 fans. Many have posted heartfelt messages on the wall.
Julian Marquez, a teammate, made a statement on behalf of the Mustangs at Canyon Park.
"We love him and we miss him and we're all praying for him," he said.