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Peoria Liberty football player determined to get back on the field

(Twitter Photo/@kevinmccabecbs)

PHOENIX — Just by looking at him, you probably couldn’t tell Liberty senior lineman Zach Hunzinger is battling more than just opposing defenses.

In March, Hunzinger was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancer that begins in the bones, after doctors discovered a softball-sized mass in his knee. He was set to visit Air Force with the hopes of living out his dream.

Already grieving, it was yet another big blow for the Hunzingers.

“My mom was recently diagnosed with cancer and was given four weeks to live in March of this year,” Hunzinger’s mother, Megan, said.

“The day before they buried my mom we found out that Zach had a mass on his knee so he went to her funeral in crutches and the next morning we were at Mayo running tests.”

But just like on the football field, fighting to gain the upper hand, Hunzinger was ready to get to work.

“As soon as he found out he had osteosarcoma, he was like ‘OK, let’s go, what do we need to do? Let’s get through. I want to play football,'” his mother said.

After going through chemotherapy, the mass is now the size of an avocado. Hunzinger’s next step is undergoing knee replacement surgery, which will take about 20 percent of his knee cap out, on Friday.

“It’s going to be a rough road ahead with the rehab and the new knee and the running and getting all his football steps back but he can do it,” Megan Hunzinger said.

“His strength, his determination, just to beat it is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anybody like that before.”

The surgery alone is expected to take around four hours, while the rehab process is estimated at six months. Then, yet another round of chemotherapy.

And even though the work to get back will be strenuous, Hunzinger isn’t letting that crush his dreams.

“My goal and my dream is to play college football and I hope I can,” the senior said. “I’m probably going to try to walk-on somewhere like ASU because that’s my favorite college football team.

“Mainly my goal is rehab it the best as I can and get a lot of my strength back. Do everything possible to get back to normal again.”

Hunzinger isn’t limiting himself to just football, however, as he has his sights set high on another goal.

“I always wanted to fly planes when I was little,” Hunzinger said. “If college doesn’t go the way I want it to be I’m just going to edit it out. I’m just going to go on the route of flying planes or helicopters. One of the two.”

One way to help keep his mind off things is getting back to the football field.

“I go to practice everyday and the team makes me feel like I’m actually playing,” the lineman said.

The lineman dons No. 50, a number that has gained much more significance for he and his loved ones since the diagnosis.

“I saw his Twitter post the other day,” Megan Hunzinger said. “It read ‘the number on the left, No. 5, represents how many times a day I tell myself I’m going to beat cancer. And the number on the right, zero, means how many times I’m not going to let cancer beat me.'”

Hunzinger’s plan is to make every game, with one exception: Friday, the night of his surgery.

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