FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – About this time last year, as a high school junior, Kyle Arieta was confronted with his mortality.
A seemingly healthy, multi-sport athlete at Dighton-Rehoboth Regional, Arieta fell ill suddenly due to a non-malignant tumor that was growing – unbeknownst to him — inside his brain. After suffering hemorrhaging of the pituitary gland, doctors performed emergency surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital on May 15.
But even then, as Arieta was in a fight for his life, all he could think about was football.
“After a life-changing event like that, knowing that anything can happen to you at any time, it’s just about going out and having fun,” Arieta said Thursday.
About as soon as Arieta was out of surgery and the ensuing week spent in the hospital recovering, he had one goal in mind: joining his Falcons teammates for opening night of his senior football season.
Everything he did was with the intent of healing, getting stronger and preparing for one last go-round, whether for a game or the entire season.
“Football kept me motivated,” said Arieta, who played tight and contributed on special teams units. “I just wanted life to be back to normal and I knew that my senior year and football was coming up. I needed to be on the field to help my teammates, that kept me motivated.”
Meanwhile, those teammates were also there to lift Arieta along the way.
“They’d come to the hospital, that meant so much,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without the support from them, telling me they couldn’t wait to see me back on the field. I felt that helped me through recovery more, knowing that they were helping me along the way.”
As summer practices approached, the unthinkable happened when doctors gave Arieta a clean bill of health, clearing him for contact on the football field.
He took the field with the Falcons at home when they opened their season against South Coast Conference rival Bourne and played the entire season, as D-R went 7-4 this year, including a two-game run in the Division 3 state tournament.
Arieta’s recovery and return earned him the Henry Smith Courage Award from The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston.
With his football career behind him, Arieta has competed with the Falcons track and field team this winter and into the spring. He plans to attend Bridgewater State University and study physical education, with the intent of getting into teaching. He wants to play intramural sports as well.
Doctor’s continue to monitor the tumor with follow-up MRIs, but, looking back on an otherwise scary ordeal, Arieta emerged with a new perspective.
“I came out stronger than I was before.”
On Thursday, Arieta was invited by the New England Patriots to tour Gillette Stadium, taking his picture on the field before getting a guided tour of the team’s Hall of Fame.
What Arieta didn’t know was that he was about to be surprised by his favorite football player – Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones.
After being drafted by the Patriots out of Syracuse in 2012, Arieta quickly gravitated to Jones. An avid follower of the NFL Draft, Arieta immediately predicted big things in New England for the pass-rusher.
“I was watching one of the preseason games with my friends and I was telling them about Chandler and how he was going to change the defense,” Arieta said. “Then, as soon as I said it, he came up with a sack. That was it.”
Jones startled Arieta in their meeting on Thursday the way he would an opposing quarterback. As Arieta and his family posed for pictures, Jones snuck up from behind interjecting, “Mind if I take a picture?”
“When I was walking out here I saw him with my jersey and that brought a smile to me,” Jones said.
Jones signed a football for Arieta and took him out on the turf, instructing him in how to get down in a stance, adding he was a “quick learner.”
“It just shows how strong he is, mentally and physically,” Jones said of Arieta. “With the illness he had, some people really don’t come back from that. A kid like Kyle, just showing how strong he is, I’m happy and I’m proud of him.”