Memorial scholarship named in memory of Visalia teen who died from cancer
Walking the campus hallways for the first time as a freshmen and being a star football player for his beloved Mt. Whitney Pioneers was all in the books for one Visalia teenager.
And, as it is with most aspiring athletes, leaving behind his eighth-grade football team to play with the big dogs in high school had become Josh Villarreal's dream.
The 15-year-old's life was cut short March 26, when he died from cancer.
To honor the boy who dreamed of attending Mt. Whitney, Assistant Principal Bob Aguilar said the school will start a memorial scholarship fund in memory of Josh. The funds will benefit a deserving senior who plans to further their education.
"We want to make sure his memory continues forward and recognize students who want to follow what he was all about," Aguilar said.
Family members said it was a long and hard fight, but one that Josh learned to embrace.
"He was a fighter," said Josh Villarreal Sr., the boy's father. "I just lost my best friend."
Josh's battle with cancer started the summer of 2014, just before the start of high school.
He was already enrolled at Mt. Whitney and was participating in the freshmen passing league when he started experiencing pain in his abdomen.
Family members said Josh was looking forward to starting his high school football career playing corner and wide receiver, but could only play a few games before his pain became persistent.
"Since he was in sixth grade, he used to go to all the Pioneer football games," Josh Sr. said. "He was ready to play. He would even dye his hair maroon."
He was a wrestler and excelled in math.
"He was not only an athlete but he was a scholar," his father said proudly.
So when Josh Jr. fell ill, his father, and mother, Lorina, tried everything they could to find out what was wrong.
After several doctor visits and a misdiagnosis, the family ended up at Valley Children's Hospital where they received news they didn't want to hear.
Doctors referred them to on oncologist.
"To be honest, I didn't know what an oncology department was," Josh Sr. said. "I looked it up, and my heart sank."
Doctors discovered the teen had soft tissue cancer that had started in the colon.
"[Doctors] talked to us first and told us that Josh had cancer," the father said. "Then she told Josh. When he heard, it was one of the only times I've seen him cry."
Josh ended up at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University for chemotherapy and radiation, where family members learned more about the cancer.
His father said after the diagnosis, and even after an emergency surgery, Josh remained hopeful.
"Dad, I'm going to beat this," Josh Sr. said his little boy would tell him. "I'm going to be a cancer survivor."
As Josh rested in his hospital bed, fighting for his life, he began to lose weight and doctors were ready to give him a feeding tube.
Josh simply said no.
At the time, he weighed under 100 pounds.
Josh Sr. said doctors told him his son had to gain five pounds of solid weight in order to avoid the feeding tube.
So he ate and succeeded.
"When the doctors came in to weigh him, they said they had never seen a kid do that," the father said. "Nurses and doctors said, 'That kid has a heart of a lion.' That's just a testimony to what kind of kid he was."
Meanwhile 15-year-old Michael Looney was doing everything he could to spend time with his best friend.
Michael met Josh playing football during Pop Warner six years ago.
The Mt. Whitney student fought back tears at a memorial service last week, as he recalled the day his parents shared the cancer news.
Michael had just returned from a wrestling camp in San Francisco.
"When they told me, it broke me inside," Michael said. "It was really devastating. It was probably some of the hardest information I ever had to hear in my life."
To cope with the situation, Michael visited his friend several times a week in the hospital.
"We would play Xbox. We would go out in the hallways and roll around in toy cars," he said. "We'd still have our fun times."
Michael described his friend as a fighter and a role model.
"Two things I can easily say that I've picked up from him, is how to be a loving friend and just how to be happy," he said. "Even these last couple of months, when it was his hardest times, he was always smiling.
Josh's smile is just one of many things his father wants people to remember.
"The main thing I want all his friends and everybody to know, is to use Josh as an inspiration for whatever they're going to do in life, whether it's with school or sports, never give up and always fight," he said.
Josh Memorial Scholarship Fund
Mt. Whitney High School
900 S. Conyer St.
Visalia, Calif., 93277