MISSION — Santos “Trey” Villarreal spent his high school days throwing touchdowns and outrunning defenders as a star quarterback for the Mission Veterans Patriots.

He then went on to play college football as a linebacker at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where he was crowned a two-time NCAA Division III National Champion.

UMHB traveled to Hardin-Simmons at Shelton Stadium in Abilene on Saturday, Oct 07, 2017.

But the toughest battle of Villarreal’s life didn’t happen on a football field against 11 other players. It was within himself as he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

ON THE FIELD

Mission Veterans football has built a reputation as one of the Rio Grande Valley’s top programs in recent years, with three consecutive district championships and a fourth-round playoff run just two seasons ago.

Mission Veterans head coach David Gilpin credits Villarreal and his 2014-15 team for laying the foundation the Patriots are building on to this day, which started with a trip to East Texas for a non-district game against the Odessa Permian Panthers.

Yes, the same powerhouse program the 2004 film in which “Friday Night Lights” is based on.

“I remember my first thought was, ‘Oh my god, that’s Odessa Permian.’ Friday Night Lights was one of my favorite movies to watch,’” Villarreal recalled.

Gilpin said he knew the chances of going there and winning were less than 1%, but it allowed him to instill a, “We ain’t scared of nobody” mindset, which Villarreal thrived with.

“Our preparation was solid and going into that game. Honestly, I was not scared. I was just ready to play. It was, ‘Let me see what I’m about. Let me see what we’re about’ going against a team with six Division I athletes,” Villarreal said.

Although the Patriots wound up losing 44-8 against Permian, they fought from beginning to end, and Villarreal exemplified that on Mission Veterans’ lone touchdown play of the game.

Villarreal received the shotgun snap from his center at Permian’s 8-yard line and rolled out to his left. With no receivers breaking open or even on the left side of the field, Villarreal had one option — use his legs to make something happen.

And he did. Villarreal saw space and sprinted towards the goal line, as were three Panthers in black jerseys. On a collision course with multiple defenders, Villarreal could have dived to avoid contact or raced to the corner to get the ball inside the pylon. Instead, Villarreal put his foot in the ground, cut up field and ran through the closest Permian defender for the touchdown as two more tacklers piled on.

“The end zone was there. I didn’t care about what was in front of me. I just cared about scoring and putting some points on the scoreboard for my team,” he said of his touchdown run against Permian.

That game, and more specifically that play, set the tough tone Mission Veterans still has to this day. It also provided a look into Villarreal’s mind — meetings obstacles head on and never backing down.

NEXT LEVEL

After high school, Villarreal continued his football career at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Originally signed as a quarterback, Villarreal admits he was humbled as he sat on the bench his freshman season in Belton. UMHB coaches saw the potential in him and a place to play — on defense as a hybrid linebacker/safety.

As a sophomore, Villarreal contributed on special teams as UMHB won the 2016 NCAA D-III National Championship. But during his junior and senior seasons, he became a key piece on the Crusaders’ defense. UMHB went back to the national championship during his junior year, but lost 12-0 to the University of Mount Union.

The following year, Villarreal’s senior season, the Crusaders bounced back with a 15-0 record and 24-16 revenge victory over Mount Union in the national championship game. Villarreal starred on defense with 15 tackles, two pass deflections and a thunderous hit just before halftime of the national championship game.

Santos “Trey” Villarreal poses with the NCAA D-III College Football National Championship trophy after winning his second national title with Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2018.

“I went to the national championship three times, I played on ESPN, I experienced all that good stuff,” Villarreal said. “We won two, lost one, so I can say I have two national championship rings and four conference rings. So it’s a lot of rings I have on display right now, but an experience that nobody can take away from me. it was just a phenomenal experience, man. Not everyone can say they have a national championship ring.”

TOUGHEST TEST YET

In early March, Villarreal didn’t feel quite like himself. Something was off.

After visiting the doctor and getting tested, he was diagnosed with Stage 2 testicular cancer at 23 years old.

For a one-year removed college football player, the game planning for opposing offenses and defenses now turned into game planning how to beat cancer.

The plan? Aggressive chemotherapy sessions three weeks at a time for six hours a day while his body received four bags of chemotherapy each session.

It took its toll on the young man who built his body and mind into those of a strong college athlete. There were times he was too weak to walk to the kitchen. When he could, he’d be left out of breath after just a few steps.

“With chemo comes a lot of fear and anxiety. Through the process, I was trying to stay mentally tough — I was working out as much as I could,” Villarreal said. “But you know, when you’re feeling weak to the point where you get up and walk to the kitchen and you’re out of breath, feeling like you’re about to pass out, it was tough. But honestly, I think I was prepared for it because of all the (crap) I went through with my whole life from high school to college, from all the training and all the times I pushed my body to the limit.”

Undergoing chemotherapy for six hours a day three weeks at a time in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic can be lonely, so Villarreal observed those around him — often elderly people going through chemotherapy treatment.

Villarreal noticed an 85-year-old woman undergoing chemotherapy, but she was telling jokes and laughing with a smile on her face. There was another man who had been going to the same office for treatment every day for 20 years and was likely going to require chemotherapy for the rest of his life.

It put everything into perspective for Villarreal. It also motivated him.

“Going through my chemo treatments, I saw older people there getting chemo and cracking jokes and laughing, and seeing that, seeing how strong they were just motivated me to attack it even more,” he said.

“If I’m 23 going through this, and the lady over the is 85 getting chemo and she’s laughing, after I saw that, she gave me so much motivation to not feel sorry for myself and really attack this thing and not let it attack me.”

On June 2, Villarreal learned his cancer was gone.

“Cancer and chemo just made me realize how life is so short, but also so delicate. Now that I’m healthy and active, I think about it and I’m so grateful for my health right now,” Villarreal said. “Those are things people don’t think about every day. People wake up and complain about little things, but man, I got to be grateful for my health because I know what it’s like on the other end. I know what it’s like when your body’s dying and you’re trying to recover from the hardest treatment in the world.”

Villarreal recently graduated from UMHB with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration. He works as a sales representative for Office Depot Corp. and plans to share his inspiring story through motivational speeches and a book he plans on writing.

“Some people say, ‘People that get cancer are lucky because if they survive it, then they only grow stronger from there,’” he said. “And that’s in regards to your body, mind, soul, and I honestly believe that. I feel like I was reborn.”

bramos@themonitor.com