SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — His scar is clearly visible, peeking out over the curved neck of his practice jersey.
But University of Akron sophomore Diogo Pacheco is not scarred by the cancer that put it there.
The 20-year-old is calm in the face of a disease that for most inspires fear. He has lost his thyroid and must return to his native Portugal in January for radiation treatments, but Pacheco believes he’s lost nothing.
He admitted he cried when his family told him via FaceTime that the rapidly growing tumor already the size of a grape was malignant and he must come home for surgery in August. But that was because he didn’t want to miss games at the start of his first season as a member of the UA men’s soccer team. That same day, he scored a goal in an exhibition against Cleveland State, although he has no idea how he kept his emotions in check.
His operation was on Aug. 22 and he vowed he would be back by Sept. 1; he arrived in Akron on Aug. 29. He began training five days later, even though it was difficult to move his neck or talk. In his first game against Canisius on Sept. 15, he scored two goals. On Sept. 26 at VCU, he had a hat trick.
Such improbabilities don’t seem so improbable when one crosses paths with Pacheco. His spirit is infectious, his outlook stunningly positive, his humility and warmth unmistakable. The hurdles in his future, which will include medication and blood tests for the rest of his life, might as well be made of matchsticks.
The two weeks in the run-up to the Zips’ 1-0 loss to Maryland in the national championship game Sunday night at Harder Stadium was fraught with bad luck for Pacheco. When he opened his mouth as he was taken down on a sliding tackle at Wake Forest, he contracted an infection below his teeth. The scrapes suffered on his forehead, nose and chin kept him out of the next game at Stanford. In the final practice before the Zips left for the College Cup, he pulled his hamstring, sidelining him for Friday’s semifinal victory over Michigan State.
He prayed he could get into the championship match, saying in a follow-up email, “It really hurts me inside not being able to do what I love the most against the best teams in America.”
UA coach Jared Embick subbed him in for the final three minutes against the Terrapins.
Although he wasn’t able to help the Zips the way he wanted at the end of the season, Pacheco is happy.
“I think I’m living the dream right now,” Pacheco said. “It’s perfect to be in Akron. I love the people inside the university and I’m really enjoying it. For me it’s a pleasure to be a player of Akron.”
Even if the dream includes cancer.
Pacheco had told no media outlets his story until Saturday, when he opened up after training at UC-Santa Barbara.
He said his calm approach to his disease is part of his nature. He detailed his medical crisis with the same serenity and faith with which he tackles it.
“I really don’t think it’s a big problem. If you take things in a positive way, I think everything is better,” Pacheco said. “If you think negatively, what’s the difference? It’s just worse for us.”
In his email he added, “Despite all the obstacles, I believe God does everything with a purpose and his timing is perfect. This journey has been full of good and bad emotions.”
Pacheco recalled the conversation with his family and what prompted his tears.
“When they told me, I was fine. I thought, ‘OK, at the end of the season I will make my surgery, everything will be fine,’” he said. “They said the next week I had to come back to Portugal to remove my cancer. That was the moment I started crying. It was the start of the season and I didn’t want to miss any games. My family was a big support. I cried a lot.”
His crisis was also tough on the Zips, who thought they were losing a talented player.
“Early in the year it hit everybody hard because when you hear cancer you don’t know how severe. I think everybody felt it. He was playing well at the time,” Embick said.
“We were all heartbroken for him when he had to go home,” senior Morgan Hackworth said. “We all remember his tears and being there for him and giving him a goodbye hug. We didn’t know if we were going to see him again, honestly.
“But for him to come back, have the impact that he did right away to score some goals and help us out on this run, it’s such an inspiration.”
Considering what Pacheco faced, Embick figured his family would want him to stay home following his operation.
“He said, ‘No, if I can go back, I want to go back.’ Everybody agreed it was possible. I think that meant a lot to the team, too,” Embick said.
What most didn’t know was how much coming to America means to Pacheco.
Pacheco spent last year at Diogo University in Portugal. He is close friends with Joao Moutinho, who played for UA in 2017 and was drafted after his freshman season by Los Angeles FC of Major League Soccer. Seven years ago, the two were rivals on the main teams in their country.
“I had the dream to move from home and America, everybody loves America. Joao Moutinho told me really good things about Akron, and I knew it was the perfect place to come and keep doing my courses. I’m taking business administration,” Pacheco said.
Although Pacheco’s first year at UA has been rocky, he remains upbeat. He was boosted after he returned from surgery by a surprise visit from his family on his Sept. 13 birthday. They stayed for 10 days and were in the stands when he scored his first goals against Canisius.
“One goal for my father, another one for my mother,” he said of his parents, Nuno and Carla Pacheco.
Embick marvels at Pacheco’s positive outlook.
“It’s almost like he’s oblivious to his situation. He smiles, he says, ‘Coach, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.’ Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but you wouldn’t know it from being around him,” Embick said. “He’s taking it like young people do, like they’re invincible sometimes.
“He’s had a rough year. He had to go back for surgery, then he has another injury. Every time he starts to get going, he has another setback. He’s a positive kid and a strong kid. The team has actually embraced a little bit of his strength and attitude toward it.”
Freshman Carlo Ritaccio agreed with Embick, saying of Pacheco, “That kid, he’s a warrior. He gets knocked down, he picks back up all the time.”
Even though he will start radiation soon, Pacheco is thankful there will be no chemotherapy, which he figures would hurt him physically. He said that his voice is “more tough” after the surgery, but he may be, too.
Most of all, Pacheco is determined that cancer will not affect his UA career.
“Never. Never. Never,” he said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.