President Mark Zupan

To the members of the Alfred University community:

Why Julio Fuentes Walking 15 Yards Made Us Saxon Proud

Many of you probably have heard of the tragedy that left Julio Fuentes, an Alfred University sophomore majoring in criminal justice, paralyzed in September 2006. At 5’2” and 150 pounds, Julio was the smallest member of our football team, but one of the grittiest athletes AU has ever seen. Talk to those who saw Julio play and they’ll recall him artfully weaving his way around opposing players a foot taller and twice as heavy as he, sometimes dragging them along as he charged down the field. Julio was our kick-off return specialist and running back, rolling up grueling yards and doing what he loved.

Against Thiel College on opening day in 2006, Julio blocked a lineman for the opposing team and sustained what doctors concluded was an injury that would leave him paralyzed for life.

But just as Julio played football with his whole heart, so did he tackle the task of regaining mobility, against all odds, first in his hands and arms, and finally in his legs. Those of us who were at Saturday’s opening game against the Husson University Eagles were privileged to witness Julio get up from his wheelchair and walk 15 yards off the field under his own power. Only 15 yards this time, but for a young man who was carried off, unconscious on a stretcher the last time he was on Merrill Field, it was a journey of thousands of miles. Julio, who has been aided over the past four years by therapists from Rehabilitation Today in Olean, was accompanied by his younger brother, Maleke, who now plays for our football team with all the passion and skill that Julio brought. In honor of his brother, Maleke wore #20, Julio’s jersey number, for Saturday’s game. Read the complete story and see the video of Julio walking off the field.

As proud as we are of Julio Fuentes and his Saxon spirit, there are other facets to this story that need to be told.

First, Bob Rankl, our head coach, recruited Julio from Olean High School. As an assistant coach under Dave Murray, Bob worked with Julio as a player and has steadfastly stood by him following Julio’s injury and the remarkable recovery that brought him back to Yunevich Stadium Saturday as our team’s honorary captain.

Second, the current members of our football team wholeheartedly supported Coach Rankl’s idea to designate Saturday as Julio Fuentes Day. They and the staff launched a raffle to raise funds for Rehabilitation Today, the facility that has played such a critical role with Julio’s recovery. Our players, the Husson team, and everyone in the stands stood in support of Julio, applauding and cheering as he covered the 15 yards off Merrill.

Third, many of Julio’s teammates from the 2006 season joined us on Saturday to honor and support Julio’s spirit.

Fourth, the Alfred University family who rallied around Julio. In the days and weeks following his injury, when he spent a month at Strong Memorial Hospital in an induced coma, and then six months at Shepherd Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, GA, faculty, staff, students, alums, and friends contributed generously to a fund to help Julio and his family.

Fifth, after walking off Merrill Field, Julio proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Heather Levia, and she said Yes!

Finally, Julio told us that his goal is to complete his degree in counseling so that he can help others who confront challenging circumstances such as the ones that he has faced. With the resounding endorsement of our University’s Board of Trustees, we have offered Julio a full-tuition scholarship and a waiver of fees if he wishes to return to our University to complete his undergraduate studies and then walk across the stage to accept his Alfred University diploma.

In my remarks to new students at our opening convocation in late August, I talked about the lessons learned from the recently published book Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance written by MacArthur Foundation Genius-Grant-winner Angela Lee Duckworth. Just ten days later, in the stands at Yunevich Stadium, we all saw the embodiment of grit in our own Julio Fuentes.

Fiat Lux!
Mark