Growing up in North Carolina, Jesus Reyes was like most other kids his age. He played soccer and football with his friends whenever he could. He looked forward to the day he could play in a youth football league and emulate his idol, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
When he was 11 years old, Jesus' goal changed to a much simpler one: survive. Jesus was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and was forced to undergo aggressive treatments, which left him weakened and fatigued. According to the National Cancer Institute, acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a type of cancer that involves an overgrowth of immature blood cells, creating a shortage of the type of mature blood cells needed to prevent infection, anemia and bleeding.
Throughout his treatments, Jesus remained strong emotionally, even if his physical strength was drained. He was a source of inspiration for his three siblings -- sisters Alisia and Crystal and brother Lazaro -- while they did everything they could to make his time in treatment as easy as possible.
One respite came every Sunday in the fall when Jesus, his father and uncles would watch NFL games, and the Jets in particular. Jesus was drawn to Sanchez, one of the league's few players of Hispanic heritage.
"He saw the way [Sanchez] was with other people," Jesus' mother, Josefa, said. "He liked how he carried himself, and that's how he became a fan."
Jesus dreamed of meeting Sanchez. In December 2011, a film crew arrived at Jesus' soccer practice. Jesus had been told he was being interviewed for a story on Hispanic sports fans for a local TV station, but when he popped a DVD into his laptop, there was a surprise for him. Sanchez delivered a personal message, inviting Jesus and his family to meet the team.
"He was excited," Josefa said. "He couldn't believe it."
A week later, Jesus and his family flew to New York and traveled to the Jets' facility, where Jesus was presented with his own locker and uniform. He met Sanchez and joined him on the practice field during the team's final walkthrough before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Even with the team preparing for a key December game during the thick of a playoff race, everyone, including Sanchez, was happy to take the time to welcome Jesus into the Jets' family.
"[Jesus] was able to talk with Mark Sanchez, see him play, practice," Josefa said. "It was wonderful."
Sanchez took some time out of practice to hold a one-on-one throwing session with Jesus, and gave the teen tips on being a quarterback. Sanchez also personally bought the Reyes family tickets to "The Lion King" on Broadway, which was going above and beyond what the Jets had planned for the day.
The next day, Jesus and his family received the full VIP treatment at the Jets game. His exciting day was topped off with the ultimate treat: the Jets’ 37-10 victory over the Chiefs. Afterward, Jesus, who met up with Sanchez again, held his own postgame news conference to round out another football dream.
Jesus' cancer is in remission and he is in the final stages of treatment. Now 14, he still undergoes chemotherapy once a month and doesn't quite have all of his strength back yet. He will, however, be able to play football for East Duplin High School in the fall, and he already has his position picked out: quarterback.
"He's even more excited now," Josefa said. "He talks about it [meeting Sanchez] all the time with his teammates."