PHOENIX – Growing up, Alex Guy was called “Shock Collar” because his hits on the football field felt like an electronic dog collar. Throughout junior high school, his football pads acted as a Superman cape because he transformed into a different person on the field. When time came for Guy to undergo his fourth surgery for melanoma, however, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, leaving him alone in the hospital, weak and battling a terminal disease.
Yet kept his smile.
Guy died in June at 23 years old, but he left a legacy that was cemented in Apache Junction in October when the high school retired his number.
Love of the game
Guy started playing football at 7, when he participated on his father’s flag football team. One year, his team placed first in a regional tournament which led to playing at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida on behalf of the Arizona Cardinals against other teams from across the nation. Guy’s team placed fifth, igniting his love of the sport.
During middle school, Guy was a quiet, soft-spoken kid. He gained weight and walked to class alone. People looked at him and didn’t see a football player, but under the pads, his confidence soared. Football brought Guy new friends, but when he started high school, he couldn’t play on the same field as them because of the way the district was aligned.
Guy’s high school career began at Skyline in Mesa. However, a back injury during practice kept him off the field. Noticing that his son’s love for football started to dwindle, Guy and his father, TJ, made the decision for Alex to return to Apache Junction and reunite with his friends after his sophomore season.
He was never the biggest kid on the team. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound linebacker was never the fastest player on the field either, but he could hit. Former Apache Junction defensive coordinator Rod Reid nicknamed Alex “Bobby Boucher” from the movie “The Waterboy” because of his ability to hit.
Even with his new team, Alex dealt with the same back injury that plagued him at Skyline. Often, Alex would not participate in contact drills in practice during his senior year, but there was never a doubt who would be playing linebacker for the Prospectors on Friday night. Reid relied on his favorite players, and Alex was one of them.
“It’s never the best players on the team. It’s the kids that get good grades, that are good kids outside of school,” Reid said. “They’re nice people in general. They’re at practice every single day. They hold themselves accountable … those are my favorite players … and he was that player.”
Alex idolized Pat Tillman, the former ASU and Arizona Cardinals linebacker/safety who died in combat in Afghanistan, which is why Alex wore No. 40, the same number Tillman wore in the NFL. Alex wanted to be remembered for the work he did off the field, and to instill passion in others to do the same thing.
Alex’s energy on the field was contagious. Despite being limited in practice, he sacrificed his body on the field. He wore glasses off the field, but he didn’t wear them under his helmet. He threw around his body nearly blind. Alex’s teammates looked up to him even though he was one of the smallest guys on the field.
“He would play a football game … like a steamroller went over him, and then backed up again over him, but he wouldn’t come off the field, and you could just see the hurt on his face,” said Vance Miller, the former Apache Junction football coach who now coaches at Arcadia High.
Despite the pain and despite being undersized, Alex kept a smile on his face. Miller would tell his team to “be sore tomorrow,” and Alex took that to heart.
“On Saturday morning, it was kind of the walking wounded,” Miller said. “He was walking a half a mile per hour and his arms weren’t moving very fast, his legs weren’t moving very fast and he had a grimacing look on his face, but he was proud.”
Off the field, Alex attended class, received good grades and stayed out of trouble. Whenever the football team needed a volunteer for a fundraiser, Alex showed up. Whenever the football team needed someone for a school event, Alex showed up. People relied on Alex, and he delivered.
When Alex graduated from Apache Junction in 2016, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He experimented with different religions and meditation. He focused on keeping his emotions under control. To Alex, emotions, no matter how good or bad, were just part of people’s journeys.
Something Alex said stuck with Tanner Garcia, one of Alex’s best friends: “If you get a flat tire, your first reaction is to get upset and angry about the situation. But no matter how angry you get, you still have to change the tire. So why put your body and health through that stress if it doesn’t change the situation. Take the situation as is. Change the tire without any true emotion and move along.”
When Alex was 21, he realized what he wanted to do with his life: help people. He volunteered at a church to help feed the homeless. None of Alex’s friends worked with him. He helped people on his own because that’s what he wanted to do. Alex committed to Christianity through volunteering through the church. He also helped at his father’s restaurant, Chompies, and worked with recovering alcoholics.
A shocking diagnosis
In May of 2019, Alex noticed a growth inside of his cheek. Alex, along with his family, went to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix to get it checked out.
On July 5, Alex’s family was celebrating TJ’s birthday when he received a call from the Mayo Clinic.
Alex was diagnosed with melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer. Later that month, Alex underwent surgery to remove the growth from the inside of his cheek. After 11 hours of surgery, the growth was successfully removed. Relief fell over Alex and his family as they thought the danger was over.
Alex had dealt with other medical issues in his life. He was born with one kidney larger than the other. During a kidney scan in September of the same year, doctors discovered tumors growing on his spine. Alex underwent immediate radiation treatment. Five days a week for six weeks, he received radiation in an attempt to rid the cancer from his body.
Alex had to put his dreams of helping others on hold. The radiation therapy forced him to stay home as he struggled to walk. However, Alex remained positive and kept a smile on his face. His meditation allowed him to keep his emotions in check and he accepted cancer as part of his journey. Whenever someone asked Alex how he was doing, he responded with “good, great, grand, and wonderful” – a line from the movie “Billy Madison.”
In 2017, Arizona had 29.7 cases of melanoma per 100,000 people, the fifth highest in the nation, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. While melanoma is most frequent in people between the ages of 80 and 84, it is one of the most common forms of cancer in people under the age of 30, according to the American Cancer Society.
One night last January, Alex’s parents sprinted into the room to find Alex laying on the ground, screaming in pain and unable to move. Once the pain subsided, he went to sit down but felt a crack in his back so his parents called 911 to take him to the Mayo Clinic.
Alex had broken multiple vertebrae in his back because the cancer had weakened his spine. Doctors put cement in Alex’s spine to help reinforce spots that were fragmented.
Melanoma is much more likely to spread throughout the body compared to other skin cancers, especially if left untreated. People have a 90% survival rate when the cancer is detected early. However, those chances dip to 25% if the cancer spreads to distant organs, according to the American Cancer Society.
The cancer continued to spread throughout Alex’s body. By March, the joint connecting Alex’s leg to his hip had been eaten away by the cancer. At just 23, Alex needed a hip replacement in order to walk.
After the hip surgery, Alex did not have any new tumors, just one toward the top of his spine that doctors waited to operate on because of the chance of paralysis. A month later, Alex’s mother, Rosa, dropped him off at the Mayo Clinic for his second spine surgery. Only this time, she couldn’t go in with him because of the coronavirus.
Alex’s family had always been by his side throughout his battle with cancer, but now, because of strict restrictions prompted by the pandemic, he had to walk into the Mayo Clinic alone for the first time.
Alex came home with a neck brace. For a couple of weeks, his health did not improve as he stopped eating and did not move from his bed. Alex knew he needed to go back to the Mayo Clinic.
Alone in a doctor’s room, Alex learned that the cancer spread throughout his body again. TJ remembered opening his phone and reading Alex’s text: “Dad you’d be proud of me because I stayed strong when they told me.”
Alex stayed in hospice care for the remainder of his life. When Garcia visited him, Alex apologized because he was tired and couldn’t talk very long with one of his best friends. However, Alex signed Garcia’s petition for his mom, who was running for the school board. Even during his last days, Alex still wanted to help others.
On June 11, 30 days after entering hospice, Alex passed away from stage 4 melanoma.
A well-deserved legacy
While Alex was quiet and soft spoken, the support the family received spoke volumes. Texts and social media posts flooded TJ’s phone. He didn’t realize his son had touched so many people. One of the nurses who worked on Alex’s hospital floor reached out to TJ to tell him how Alex never complained about himself, but he was always asking the nurses how they were doing through the pandemic. Despite being in pain, Alex still cracked jokes and made other people laugh.
“People say their kid is special, but it’s how many other people have told me how much he’s touched them and the stories,” TJ said. “It’s amazing.”
On Oct. 16, before the football team’s home opener, Apache Junction retired Alex’s No. 40 to honor his grit, tenacity, and toughness. It wasn’t just the work on the field that will live with No. 40, but all of his good deeds away from it. The impact of him feeding the homeless, his talks with recovering alcoholics and his positivity will hang over Davis Field in Apache Junction forever. He defined a Prospector on the field, but also as a person.
“For people to jump through the hoops that they needed to because of the person he was and not the football player that he was … that was probably the most special part of it,” TJ said.
“For the future Prospectors, they have someone to look up to and Alex continues his journey of inspiring others,” Garcia said.
Alex’s family dawned T-shirts with “My heart is full all day long” written across the front. Alex played football and lived his life with a full heart, and he gave other people the same feeling.
“The day he passed away, I didn’t feel sadness … my heart felt full,” TJ said. “That was the feeling he gave people … he was infectious in that way.”
Printed on the back of their shirts was “#alexguystrong,” which characterizes his fighting spirit. Whether on the field or off, Alex fought with grit and intensity. He didn’t allow situations to overtake him. Instead, he accepted the challenges.
“He approached everything like he was going to take it over and he was gonna be the best at it and nobody was gonna tell him any different,” said Miller, his former coach.
Alex’s happiness changed his family. No matter if it was a brother, uncle or grandmother, Alex taught them all the same thing. He wanted people to realize they can impact everyone they meet, even in passing. No matter how big or small the interaction is, people can make a difference.
Alex impacted his family the most. He passed his wisdom onto his four siblings. Hayden, 9, sleeps with Alex’s blanket every night. The children’s actions are followed by “is that something Alex would do?” from their parents.
TJ didn’t understand why his son experienced so much pain, but he knew Alex didn’t want him to be sad. The family held a celebration of life for Alex, a ceremony TJ didn’t understand at first, until he recalled the way Alex lived his life.
“I never truly understood celebrations of life because I was the one that was angry when things happened, but because of what he taught me and the way he changed me, I didn’t cry much at the funeral,” TJ said. “I kept other people from crying because that’s not what Alex wanted.”
Alex’s death, said TJ, made him more family oriented. TJ used to work 50 to 60 hours a week at Chompies. Alex wished his father would quit his job and find something he enjoyed, regardless of money. Alex’s passing made TJ reevaluate what’s important to him, and that was his family. TJ quit his job to spend more time with his wife and kids. He wanted to be available for them, just like Alex had.
“He changed the way I thought about life (and) how important family is,” TJ said.
Every evening, the family gathers around a picture of Alex to say goodnight. Before going to bed, they say a prayer starting with, “Thank you God, Jesus and Alex for being good, great, grand and wonderful.”
Alex’s family created the Alex Guy Strong Foundation in honor of him. It aims to impact people in any way possible. Whether it is on a major or minor scale, the foundation hopes to change people’s lives, just as Alex did.
“If we can change one thing of each person, the way that Alex (did), that’s what the goal of the foundation is. Whether it’s financially or personally, the way they treat somebody or the way they think, no matter what it is we want to impact every person that we can,” TJ said.
The initial funds from the foundation will go toward helping families financially through the adoption process. The ability to build families and allow children to find the right home was always important to Alex.
“We want the foundation to allow people who want to have kids and build families, (allow them to) build families the right way, and that’s what Alex would want with it,” TJ said.
To Alex, cancer was just another flat tire. Instead of being upset or angry, Alex changed the tire. He knew he still had a road ahead of him. Alex continues his journey today through his foundation, through everyone he impacted and through his family.
Just as his football pads acted as a Superman cape to change himself, his death allows other people to change themselves for the better.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Alex Guy Strong Foundation or donating, click here.