The Norman Transcript

September 27, 2009

Like a champion

By Michael Kinney

NORMAN — When Santiago Restrepo thinks of his son, there is not one particular memory that comes to the forefront. In the four years Javi Restrepo spent with his family, he provided his father with countless memories that will stay with him forever.

However, when Restrepo, who is the volleyball coach at Oklahoma, thinks about the days the entire family spent on the beach in Florida, he can't help but get emotional.

"He was definitely having a great time," Restrepo said with tears in his eyes. "That was one of his wishes that he wanted to go to the beach. And thanks to Bob Stoops for letting us use his plane, and letting us use his condo. We left in the morning, got there at around 2 p.m. and spent the afternoon at the beach. And the next morning we were at the beach and we left that afternoon. That was very special. It was a great moment for us."

Their trip to Florida was one of the final times the Restrepo family spent together. July 31, 4-year-old Javi Restrepo lost his three-year fight with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and died.

But, while his son may be gone, coach Restrepo said the memory of Javi and his battle with the deadly disease is not gone. That is why Wednesday, when the Sooner volleyball team hosts Nebraska, the match will be part of Leukemia Awareness Night.

Even though Restrepo knows the night will be emotional for him, he and his team wanted to do it.

"It's going to be extremely tough," Restrepo said. "There isn't a day that goes by without me thinking about him, with my wife (Heidi). It will be overwhelming, I think."

Those in attendance can participate in the Pledge for a Cure fundraiser by making a donation for each Oklahoma kill, ace, dig or block recorded during the match. The donations will be given to the Jimmy Everest Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at the Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center.

The Sooners will hand out orange bracelets that say "Javi" on one side and "Fight Like A Champion" on the other. It's a phrase that has a special meaning for Restrepo and the team.

"It all started when he was a year and a half old and he was diagnosed," Restrepo said. "I kept saying to him in Spanish 'Pelea como campe?n', which it translates to 'fight like a champion.' From that point on, every single day and every single year I kept telling him 'Pelea como campe?n.' So when we were thinking of a phrase to put on the bracelet, we didn't want to use it in Spanish. So we figured in English would be good, and it's a catchy phrase."

Oklahoma junior Francie Ekwerekwu saw the same fight in Javi.

"His trademark was to always fight," Ekwerekwu said. "He was such a strong little boy that he would fight for anything. He is definitely an inspiration for us. We think about him and remember him every day we hit the court."

Javi was first diagnosed with leukemia when he was just a year and a half old. After holding the disease back for a couple of years, in 2008 he had his first relapse. He needed a bone marrow transplant from Diego, his older brother.

Unfortunately, too much damage had been done to Javi's liver during chemotherapy and a liver transplant had to take place. After that, there was nothing else medically anyone could do. All that was left was for Restrepo and his family to do whatever they could to make Javi's final days special.

Yet, it was Javi who left his father and his team with something memorable. Even at such a young age, he showed them all to never give up or give in.

"In January, when the liver transplant happened, everything he had to go through to get back onto his own feet and walk and all that," Restrepo said. "To see what he did, it was incredible. To be fighting for his life for so long, he kept smiling all the way throughout until the last day. He was very courageous."

Since his son's death, Restrepo has not gone into seclusion. He has done everything he can to get the story out about his son's battle with leukemia and the toll it can take on families.

Restrepo isn't doing this for sympathy. He just doesn't want anyone to forget.

"I think we chose to share it with everybody because we want the memory of him to continue on," Restrepo said. "For everybody to understand how tough he was. And how courageous he was. And the biggest smile that he had. It would light up the whole room when he was around. But also raise money to help so we can someday find a cure for leukemia. Hopefully everybody remembers how great my son was. And obviously how dedicated this team is to make all this happen and for them to be so courageously dedicating the season for my son."

Michael Kinney 366-3537 mkinney@normantranscript.com