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The really important game

Mateo Lopez suctions his father’s trachea tube to help him breathe and speak. Lopez, 20, put aside college and a promising football career to stay home to care for his father, Paul Lopez, who has ALS. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Lopez family has stuck together through good times and bad since father Paul Lopez was diagnosed in 2015 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. From top left are son Mateo, 20, son Leonardo, 11, Paul Lopez and wife, Billie Lopez. In front is the family pooch, Penelope. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Paul and Billie Lopez have been together for 25 years but married only three years ago. The two met at a party at Paul’s house and, he jokes, Billie never left. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He does not think about the way things were supposed to be, the way he wanted them to be, his destiny, his future.

And yet.

Mateo Lopez, 20, shows me the photos and the awards in the family’s sunroom, which is something of a shrine to accomplishments and athleticism, family and the Dallas Cowboys.

He is here in these photos, memories of his life as a football player from third grade to senior year, YAFL to the West Mesa High School varsity football team as a 6-foot-3, 235-pound defensive end.

After graduation in 2017, he had plans to play football in college, maybe even beyond that.

“If I could do one thing,” he whispers, “it’s to play football.”

But four years ago, he sat in a parking lot with older sister Nadia as their father broke the news that life had suddenly changed for them.

After a year of wondering why his legs kept buckling and his arms kept hanging heavy as leaden weights, Paul Lopez had finally learned that day that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“We cried in that parking lot a good long while,” Paul, 51, said of that day in 2015. “And then I said, ‘OK, that’s it. We’ve done our crying. That part is over. We’re going to keep on living our normal lives. We’re not going to let this stop me or us.’ ”

Paul never missed Mateo’s games. He never asked his son to give up his dream of playing college football.

But that day, Mateo made that decision for himself.

“I put all that to the side,” Mateo said. “I have my whole life ahead of me, and right now my dad and my mom need me.”

And so it has been since that day in the parking lot. Mateo finished high school, finished football, capping off his varsity year with All District honors. And then he went home to help his dad.

This is the way things are supposed to be for now.

“He’s put his life on hold, education, employment, relationships and possibly playing football post-high school,” said Joey Montano, who lives across the street. “This young man is special. He’s an angel to his mother, Billie, and a great role model for his 11-year-old brother, Leo.”

Mateo said he’s just being a son.

ALS is a cruel, incurable disease, dissolving the motor neurons that control the muscles and bodily functions until it takes everything.

“I was very active in sports and in the Navy,” said Paul, who before he got sick managed the Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q on Coors NW, where daughter Nadia now works. “But then one day it hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t even lift a gallon of milk.”

Doctors gave him two to five years before the disease killed him. It’s been five years now since that ton of bricks hit.

In the first years, the family traveled as much as they could – Disneyland, Las Vegas, Colorado, any place they could enjoy whatever time was left.

Three years ago, Paul and Billie, together for 25 years, finally made it official and got married. Paul could stand long enough then for the 20-minute ceremony.

His standing days are over now. A recent bout of pneumonia landed him in the hospital for two months. He uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. A tracheotomy tube was installed to make it easier for him to breathe. He estimates he is down to 122 pounds, but he looks far more frail than that.

Thanks largely to his veterans benefits, his family has been able to retrofit the house to make it wheelchair-accessible. They’ve installed a specialized hospital bed and hired medical caregivers who visit several times a week.

But his round-the-clock care team is his wife and his sons, especially Mateo, whose strength comes in handy for lifting his father in and out of bed, the van, the wheelchair, the bath.

Mateo stays up most of the night, listening to the hum and whir of the machines that keep his father comfortable. Now and then, his father makes a clicking sound with his mouth or presses a call button should he require the phlegm to be suctioned from his throat so he can breathe.

“I am blessed to have my family,” Paul said. “To tell you the truth, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I think we’ve had more good than bad – maybe 90% good. And that ain’t bad.”

This Thanksgiving it will be just family, like always. They will give thanks, they said, for the year they’ve had together and a chance for another. It will be like the saying Billie has posted on the sunroom wall: The love of a family is life’s greatest blessing.

“I want to go out laughing, smiling, and I will as long as I have them around,” Paul said. “They make me want to keep going.”

So they keep going.

There will be time enough, Mateo said, for girlfriends and parties and college and, just maybe, football again. For now, his place is here with his father, his family.

“I’ll still have a life after this,” he said. “But as long as he’s here, I’m here.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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