WESTERLY — The day finally arrived for Sam Luzzi.
It was last Monday. The opening day of soccer practice. The first time in more than a year the Westerly High senior could get back on the field with his teammates.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” he said.
“Just to be able to get back on the field, I’ve been dreaming about it. Even though it doesn’t seem like a long time, that year that I had to take off felt like an eternity.”
Luzzi couldn’t play for the Bulldogs last season because he was undergoing treatment for cancer. He was diagnosed with pre-B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia on March 30, 2017.
He was 15 years old at the time, president of the sophomore class.
“You never think it could happen to you,” Luzzi said. “Just having a lot of family and friends there to support me, that helped get me through. There were definitely some not-so-good days, but you’ve gotta just look for the good.”
It’s been quite a journey for Luzzi, who’s currently in remission but goes to The Tomorrow Fund Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence once a week to receive outpatient chemotherapy treatment that is administered through a port inserted in his chest.
The maintenance chemo will continue until the middle of May 2019 to prevent the disease from recurring.
“You lose your hair. That was definitely very emotional,” he said, referring to the effects of the early aggressive chemo during a month-long stay in the hospital in April 2017. “That’s kind of like your mark — that’s what marks you as a cancer patient.
“Just not really feeling myself and not being able to do the things that I love, necessarily — that kind of made me feel like not me. That was the toughest part, I’d say, is not feeling like myself. Feeling like a different person.”
The worst is behind him now.
Luzzi, who turns 17 on Sunday, was back at the beach this summer. He’s playing soccer. He’s working two jobs, landscaping with a friend and making pizza at Voc’s Dunn’s Corners Pizza & Pub, as well as assisting at his church, Immaculate Conception. And he’s able to hang out with his friends, not confined to his home because of a suppressed immune system.
He also remains the class president, and carries a 4.1 grade-point average (top 25 in his class) into this academic year.
It was last winter — when he started receiving less-intense chemotherapy drugs — that things began to turn around.
“My hair grew back, and I started feeling better,” Luzzi said. “I started exercising again. I joined the indoor track team, did track in the spring. Being able to exercise and be part of the team made me feel like my old self.”
His return also proved to be an inspiration to fellow student-athletes at Westerly High.
“The way he dealt with his situation and managed to stay positive and push through will always be inspirational to me,” four-sport star Megan Albamonti, a senior and close friend of Luzzi’s, said in an email.
“His will to get back into the classroom and onto the field was crazy. It should inspire all of us, as student-athletes, to never let anything hold us back, and to not make excuses. Sam is a leader and a fighter, and I’m so excited that he’ll be back on the field for senior year.”
Luzzi, who watched many of the Bulldogs’ soccer games from the bench last fall, knows he won’t be at full strength this season when he’s on the field, where he expects to play either striker or center attacking midfielder. The way his three-week cycle of chemo works, the doses decrease in quantity with each consecutive week, so his energy and stamina are at their best after the third week. And that, he said, will put him at “maybe 70 percent” of what he used to be.
Nevertheless, Luzzi’s grateful just to be back playing the game he loves with his teammates, his friends and, this season, his brother Ben, a sophomore.
“My perspective on it has changed a lot,” Luzzi said. “My friends know me as a competitive person, but now I’m just thankful to be out there again. Through my illness, my teammates and friends supported me. I’ve been playing with these kids since elementary school, when I first started playing the game. It’s just gonna be good to get back out there with them and just have fun with it and, hopefully, win some games along the way.”
And Brian Williams is glad to have him out there.
Westerly’s third-year boys soccer coach said Luzzi’s been a leader on the team since his sophomore year. And this season, that ability will be invaluable to a young team — Luzzi is one of just two seniors on the Bulldog roster.
“Like I tell all the kids, the opportunity is there for us to make a good name for ourselves if we work hard,” Williams said. “Sam’s here every day, trying to push through, doing his best, and the kids see that and they love it.”
Williams added that he’s seen “flashes” of Luzzi’s old self, and that the striker hasn’t lost his finishing ability, but that “he just gets tired quicker.”
“He has his own setbacks, and the setbacks might upset him for a couple minutes,” Williams said. “But he’s the first person to say, ‘OK, I want to try again.’ He’s always trying; he keeps trying. Even for myself it’s motivational. That kid doesn’t want to give up.”