Valley Vista’s worst football loss of the season almost evaporated in a momentof joy.Late in the Oct. 4 48-7 home loss to Avondale La Joya, senior receiver Hunter Sutliffe caught a pass for 10 yards and a first down. TheMonsoon sideline erupted.
“It’s not as much of a memory of a loss as it is a memory of Hunter coming back. Everyone on the sidelines were happy and excited that he got that opportunity,” said senior linebacker Trenton Foster, who has played football with Sutliffe since he was 8.
It was Sutliffe’s first catch since he was diagnosed with epilepsy two-and-a-half years ago. He played occasionally since then and served as a deluxe team manager, but never had Hunter felt like he was part of the team as muchas this moment.
“I was nervous about the contact part,” Hunter Sutliffe said. “I liked it because I felt like I was one of the guys again.”
His father, Tom, has been on the Monsoon staff since 2015, Hunter had a fairly normal season on the freshman teamed his younger brother, Garrett, was an eighth grader preparing to play for the Monsoon.
A routine day of youth football became the line of demarcation for the family.
“We were here for a youthfootball game. He had helped me load up all the stuff and I came here to open up the gates and was talking to Garrett. When I was driving around from the back to the front, Brayden came running to me and said, ‘Hey, Hunter has just had a seizure,’” Tom Sutliffe said. “It was just after his freshman year of football, February or March.”
Shortly thereafter the seizures continued and doctors diagnosed Hunter with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.
He played in two games for the junior varsity his sophomore year while his parents, Tom and Allison, wrestled with the decision.
“His mom and I, to be 100 percent honest with you, tried to push him away from it. His instant reaction was he broke down and he said, ‘I really want to play football,’” Tom Sutliffe said.
It was difficult for Hunter and his many youth football teammates now at Valley Vista to adjust.
“Football wasn’t really football without Hunter. And everybody was shocked and upset that he couldn’t be with us,” Foster said.
Hunter did not play his junior season. Instead he was a team manager, and more.
Tom Sutliffe said coaches and players do not have to ask him because he knows the game of football and he knows what happens next. He knows when kids are going to need water, or he’ll go set up the drill.
“We call him the MOFO. Iknow that’s going to come out funny. We call him the master of football operations because he does a little bit of everything. And you can trust him to get it done,” Sekoch said.
At times the coach would get upset at others because Hunter was doing their jobs too — like picking up after everyone at a team pizza party Oct. 26.
“In 22 years I don’t think I’ve had a manager that was so bought in. He’s committed to it and helping his teammates. He had perfect attendance in the summer so he has his own big locker even when he wasn’t playing. Which usually you don’t
get if someone isn’t playing,” Sekochsaid.So talk turned to the possibility of him playing in a couple of games as a senior.
Tom Sutliffe said Sekoch brought the idea to him and he was thrilled, though nervous.
Stress and the lack of sleep are the main triggers for Hunter. While his parents bore the brunt of it, Sekoch and some teammates also witnessed two seizures in his class.
“Hunter has obstacles thathis teammates don’t have to overcome. Some of them have seen the seizures when they happen. They’re definitely intense and scary to watch. And every time they happen, as a parent, you automatically go to the worst. ‘Is he breathing?’ And sometimes he isn’t. Then you’re counting minutes. One week he had a seizure in his sleep. Luckily he has this thing on his watch that makes noise if he has one and it alerted my wife and I.”
His epilepsy also narrows how much of the typical high school experience Hunter Sutliffe gets to enjoy. For example, younger brother Garret can drive now and Hunter can’t.
And just imagine being a teenager who cannot be left alone.
“We looked at it at the beginning of the year because we didn’t think he could ever get cleared,” Sekoch said. “This year the idea was he’s a senior, he’d be on varsity anyway. Let’s have him wear his jersey. He doesn’t have to play. He’s been the guy that held up our formation cards. Then early this year I
just asked, “Can you ask the doctor? Will they clear him to be involved more?’ That’s what we figured - one game, get him in for a couple plays so he can’t say it got the best of him for three years.”
Tom and Allison Sutliffe talked with the doctor just before the first game of the season. Hunter has rarely completed a 60- day period without a seizure.
He was cleared to play, with conditions.
“This team means a lot to him and he wanted to be a part of it. He worked his rear end off,” Tom Sutliffe said.
Hunter received some game action prior to La Joya, but the 7-3 Monsoon led those games by large margins and throwing the ball would not have been received well — particularly since Valley Vista did not explain Hunter’s condition before games.
Playing a handful of snaps did not erase his epilepsy. Tom Sutliffe said the family is still looking for the right medication and just changed it. With the right drug, some people can have as much asfive years between seizures.
But the psychological effect of playing a football game cannot be discounted.
“Being able to play meant my seizures were getting better,” Hunter Sutliffe said.
Hunter said after graduating from high school, he plans to attend the West-MEC campus in Buckeye, studying at the vocational school to be an electrician. He wants to work for APS, as his uncle and grandfather have done.
Eventually, Hunter said he wants to coach football like his father.
Tom Sutliffe said Sekoch has given his older son the ideal model for how to help young men grow through coaching.
“Last year during the awards ceremony there was a lot of awards given out. Josh is a hard-nosed coach and his passion sometimes rubs people the wrong way. But he made a purposeful action to make sure Hunter got his varsity letter as a junior. He called him up and made a special award for him. And there was a standing ovation from all the parents and the players. That was my favorite moment of all this,” Tom Sutliffe said.