Loss of loved one pushes Greenfield’s Santiago to be the best player he can be

  • Greenfield’s Laz Santiago pulls down Turners Falls’ John Driscoll during Greenfield’s Turkey Day football win. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Greenfield’s Laz Santiago wraps up Turners Falls’ John Driscoll during Greenfield’s Turkey Day football win. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Greenfield lineman Laz Santiago fights off a block during a Turkey Day football win over Turners Falls. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

Recorder Staff
Thursday, April 05, 2018

Greenfield High School senior Laz Santiago will never forget the moment that his life changed.

It was the summer of 2015 and Santiago was carrying his 5-year-old sister Cia Cia around the house. Cia Cia was crying as the two talked about their mother, Tonia Irene Gary, who passed away during the previous winter. Suddenly, Cia Cia reached down and picked up a necklace off a dresser. The heart-shaped pendant contained some of their mother’s ashes.

“She just smiled at it and said, ‘She’s right here,’” Santiago recalled. “That’s the moment I will remember for the rest of my life. It’s what got me going.”

Santiago said that in that moment, he decided he not only wanted to make his mother proud, but he also wanted to be a role model for his younger sister. That began a life transformation of which Santiago will be honored Sunday by receiving the Francis X. Keating Award at the 56th annual Western Massachusetts chapter of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame Banquet Sunday at UMass. The Keating award is presented to a player who has overcome off-field adversity through special determination.

When Santiago graduates from GHS in two months, it will likely be an emotional scene. It was nothing like when he entered high school and had no aspirations.

“I came to school with a fake smile. I wasn’t really trying to do anything,” he said.

One thing Santiago did do was play football, a sport he played when he was younger but had not participated in for years. He said he was not very good but went through the motions because he enjoyed the sport. After his mother passed away during the winter of his freshman year in 2014, Santiago became an orphan and began to spiral downhill. He also thought about quitting football, which was one of the primary reasons he went to school. At one point, junior Brayten Stack convinced Santiago to stick with it.

“I wasn’t one of the best players at all. I was one of the worst,” he said with a laugh. “He sort of said, ‘You suck now but can get way better.’ He helped me keep playing.”

Meanwhile, Santiago was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Francisco Javier and Fawn Santiago. That summer, Laz had his memorable moment with his little sister and something clicked.

“Instead of moping around the house all day, I wanted to make something of myself,” he said.

He committed himself to working out with the goal of playing varsity football during the fall of his sophomore year. When he went out for the team, he said he practiced well as a tackle but struggled with some of the footwork and was passed over for a senior. Undeterred, he tried out for defensive tackle and nailed the audition, earning a starting spot he kept all season. Football was a big reason that Santiago was able to get through the pain of losing his mother.

“My team helped me get through a lot,” he said. “Going to practice, playing with them, hitting them, it was the best.”

He again committed himself to football over the following summer, and that fall he not only started on both offense and defense, but was also named co-captain, which he held again this season. He said that one of his goals had been to for his coach to believe he was a good player, because he remembered his mom telling him how great he was during his freshman year, when he knew he wasn’t.

“My mom used to say I was real good even when I was real bad,” he said. “I wanted my coach to think I was decent.”

Mission accomplished. This season, Santiago was named the Intercounty League Lineman of the Year.

“He really made himself a decent football player and also a leader,” Greenfield coach Mike Kuchieski said. “He really bought into it, and it was a joy to see some of the things he is now involved in. He’s a lovable kid. A big, soft teddy bear on and off the field.”

His high school football career culminated this fall with the Green Wave finishing 7-3 overall and earning a win Turkey Day over Turners Falls High School, ending a six-year losing streak by the Green Wave. Santiago had a big game in the win.

He said that one other decision he made after his mother passed was to be more involved in the community. He joined the Key Club, and has volunteered through that, helping cook fried dough during the Turners Falls Pumpkinfest, serving soup at a soup kitchen, and helping with a field day for children at which he taught football. He also went on a two-week trip to Nicaragua, where he helped teach English to Spanish-speaking people among other things.

“It’s crazy how different it is there,” he said. “It was a life-changing trip.”

In the fall, Santiago will attend Framingham State University, where he will play football and study computer science. Before that, he will deliver a speech in front of hundreds of onlookers at Sunday’s banquet.

It’s the kind of things that undoubtedly has his mother proudly looking down on him.

“I think she would be proud,” Santiago said. “I really pushed myself. I didn’t want my siblings to be like I was when I was a freshman. I wanted to be something. I wanted to make my mom proud. I wanted to be a great role model for my little sister.

“Life gets bad sometimes,” he concluded. “But you need to climb over any obstacles that are in front of you.”

Be it an opposing lineman or the loss of a loved one, Santiago has proven no obstacle is too much to overcome.