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South East’s Gerardo Leos faces a daunting test

The right arm that had helped carry Gerardo Leos onto the varsity football team as a sophomore was numb.

The right leg that had helped earn him the nickname “Tasmanian devil” was weak.

It was July, and the normally fleet linebacker-running back from South East High in South Gate was seemingly stuck in slow motion. He could barely lift one of his legs over a set of ropes during practice drills.

“I knew there was something wrong,” said Derwin Henderson, Leos’ coach, “because he’s a really quick kid and he’s always first in line.”

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The sensations in his extremities were initially dismissed as nothing more than heat exhaustion. When the symptoms later returned, there was fear they might be tied to cancer.

Last weekend came the diagnosis, two words that could rock even the most unflinching teenager: multiple sclerosis. There is no cure for the progressive autoimmune disease of the central nervous system.

“It’s shocking because I’m 15 and I’m going through this,” Leos said this week.

He’s not enduring it alone. On Friday, when unbeaten South Gate (4-0) plays host to Garfield (0-4) in its first game since Leos learned of his disorder, the Jaguars plan to honor the player Henderson described as “the rock of our team” because of his hardworking, fearless demeanor.

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“It’s all him,” Henderson said. “Every piece of tape, everything is going to have No. 14 on it.”

That would be Leos’ jersey number, one the sophomore hopes to wear again in a game before the end of the season.

He would not be the first athlete to compete with multiple sclerosis. UCLA’s Robert Kibble played on special teams as a freshman in 2005 before being forced to retire because of his condition. Stan Belinda, a major league relief pitcher, played for two seasons after his diagnosis in 1998.

Leos wants to add his name to the list. He has an appointment with a neurologist Oct. 17, at which point he is supposed to learn more about his prognosis.

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“Hopefully I get to play soon,” he said.

Dr. Leigh Maria Ramos-Platt, a neurologist with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said Leos could play again as long as he could tolerate the physical rigors of the sport.

It seems folly to rule out anything for the undersized overachiever who made the varsity last summer without playing one down on a lower-level team. Coaches first observed the 5-foot-7, 145-pound mighty mite plowing through junior varsity defenders in spring practice, prompting a Jaguars assistant to ask why Leos wasn’t on the varsity.

Henderson confessed he didn’t even know the kid’s name. The coach told Leos he would make the varsity only if he figured to play. That seemed increasingly likely after Leos continued to impress during a summer passing league.

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But the frightening episodes of numbness, weakness and tingling in his arm and leg commenced shortly thereafter. Leos would sprint for a few seconds before having to stop, the right side of his body unwilling to cooperate.

Visits to clinics and specialists ensued. Symptoms abated and returned, only to vanish again. Leos played in the Jaguars’ first three games, establishing himself as a special-teams dynamo.

“He’s like a kamikaze,” running back Chris Ochoa said. “Every time we kicked the ball off, it was him getting the tackle.”

Last week, Leos began suffering headaches. He was rushed to the hospital, enduring a four-hour MRI exam, before receiving his diagnosis.

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“Once they told me the results,” he said, “there was nothing I could do but stay strong.”

Henderson delivered the news to his players Monday. Several asked about the particulars of the disease. The coach explained it was a serious disorder, something that was more likely to affect Leos in years to come and might require occasional hospitalization.

While Leos appeared upbeat when he returned to campus Wednesday, his mother, Ofelia, acknowledged the family feared for his future.

“For Gerardo and me, for us, the truth is we feel really bad,” Ofelia said in Spanish. “I’m going to tell you something: I’m putting everything in God’s hands and the hands of the doctors.”

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For his part, Henderson hopes Leos can fulfill his dream to play again. Not that he would let Leos decide whether to return to the field.

“If it was up to him,” Henderson said, “he would dress and play on Friday.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.


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