IN DIRE NEED — NA senior Velazquez awaits kidney replacement surgery

Jared Velazquez was looking forward to this scholastic sports season, After all, it was going to be his senior year at North Arlington High School, the last year to spend with his childhood friends, playing the sports that he loved.

Velazquez has been playing baseball since he was eight years old, soccer since he was 10, and had been a varsity soccer and baseball player since he arrived at North Arlington High.

Velazquez always loved being a busy kid.

“I loved the conditioning part of soccer,” Velazquez said. “I was a bigger kid when I was younger, so I needed to be in condition to play. But I liked soccer in general. I used to score a lot more goals when I was younger, but I became a midfielder and settled in there.”

Veteran North Arlington head coach Jesse Dembowski liked what Velazquez brought to his team.

“He started for me since his freshman year at center midfield,” Dembowski said. “He would be one of the first ones on the attack for us. He was a big part of our midfield. He made a lot of plays. He made things happen.”

Velazquez also played top level club soccer for the prestigious Ironbound Soccer Club.

So Velazquez was anticipating a solid senior year for the Vikings.

“I figured I could have a good future perhaps playing soccer in college,” Velazquez said. “This was going to be a pretty good opportunity to show the scouts that I could play.”

There wasn’t a conventional preseason this year, due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Velazquez’s chance to play for Ironbound also went away due to the virus.

So when preparation for the high school season was delayed until September, Velazquez had to wait his turn.

“I was ready to go,” Velazquez said.

But when practices began in September, Velazquez didn’t feel right.

“I was beginning to feel nauseous all the time,” Velazquez said. “I couldn’t eat at all. It started getting worse. I was afraid to eat anything, because I didn’t like the feeling.”

The discomfort continued for a few weeks.

“I then told my Mom (Lizette) that we had to go to the doctor to see if it was just a stomach virus,” Velazquez said. “I was also going to the bathroom less, making less urine.”

When Velazquez went to the doctor, an initial test proved to be vital.

“My blood pressure skyrocketed,” Velazquez said. “The doctor told me to go to the emergency room right away.”

Velazquez went to the ER at Hackensack University Medical Center to undergo a different blood test.

“An hour later, the doctor told me that there was something seriously wrong with my kidneys,” Velazquez said.

The blood test determined that Velazquez was suffering from focal segmental glomerulosclerosis or FSGS. It’s a disease that attacks the tiny filtering units inside the kidneys where blood is cleaned. FSGS is the type of glomerular disease and scarring, also known as sclerosis that eventually renders the kidneys useless.

It’s very rare among teenagers. Velazquez just turned 17. Most FSGS patients are much older and it could very well be a hereditary disease.

Velazquez was tested and it turned out that his form of FSGS is not genetic, so he’s the only one in his immediate family to have it.

Needless to say, the diagnosis floored Velazquez.

“When the doctors told me I was in kidney failure, I just tried to stay strong,” Velazquez said. “I didn’t want to break down, especially not in front of my Mom.”

Velazquez remained hospitalized for a few weeks until his blood pressure was stabilized. He was fitted with a stent in order to receive the dialysis treatment that is required three times a week.

“The kidney doctors at Hackensack have no clue how it all started,” Velazquez said. “Both of my kidneys are really small and are operating at 15 percent capacity. The kidney doctors at Hackensack believe that this had been happening for a long time and it just never showed up in a physical.”

Luis Velazquez, Jared’s father, was stunned when Jared received the diagnosis.

“This threw a monkey wrench into everything,” Luis Velazquez said. “We were all so looking forward to Jared’s college days. He was in the middle of taking college visits to now this.”

One of Jared’s doctors believes that the FSGS could be caused by Jared being born prematurely. Lizzette Velazquez was just a little more than seven months pregnant when Jared was born.

“Maybe his kidneys were not fully developed,” Luis Velazquez said.

Luis Velazquez’s older brother, Ricardo, had something similar happen to him, namely kidney failure that required transplant surgery. But Ricardo was 49 years old when he had the surgery, receiving a kidney from his mother.

The Velazquez family – Luis, Lizzette and their daughter, Lauren, a softball and soccer player at NA – remains close knit through Jared’s trials and tribulations.

“When you see me, I don’t look sick,” Jared Velazquez said. “I think I feel normal.”

Still, Velazquez cannot play until a transplant donor is found. Velazquez is working out, wearing the NA colors with pride.

“I was looking forward to the day where I played soccer in college.” Jared Velazquez said.

That day still come. If Jared can receive a donation and undergoes the transplant surgery, then there’s a chance he could play at the next level. But there are no guarantees.

For now, Velazquez attends practices with his teammates and keeps a stiff upper lip.

“It’s been a blessing that he still has the same state of mind,” Luis Velazquez said. “In his mind, it’s just another obstacle. As parents, of course, we worry about the worst. But then we see his attitude and his ability to just take it all in. He makes us all more comfortable and enables us to deal with it.”

Velazquez is on the donor list, but he’s still not currently a candidate for the transplant until his hypertension is under control.

Velazquez is also a challenge for a transplant because of his blood type, the rare O-positive.

“It’s sad, but I still see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Velazquez said. “Colleges are still interested in me. I could play in college after the transplant. I still think I’m the same player. But everything is up in the air until I can find a living donor.”

If Velazquez can find a donor, then he can return to playing club soccer and playing baseball for the Vikings in the spring.

The North Arlington Booster Club raised money to help the Velazquez family with their medical costs. They established a GoFundMe page for Jared, raising almost $20,000.

The Booster Club, under the guidance of Joe Witt, the father of Joey Witt, Velazquez’s friend and teammate, started a T-shirt drive in honor of Velazquez.

“When the school learned, everyone was just devastated,” Dembowski said. “We were truly heartbroken. He’s just one of those kids that everyone knows and loves. He’s extremely positive. But he keeps telling us that he’ll be alright.”

It was slated to be a great year for the Vikings, but with Covid on top of Velazquez’s illness, it’s been a long year. The Vikings currently own a dismal 2-6-1 record, not what Dembowski planned.

“We’ve waited for this for a long time,” Dembowski said. “This was our year. If we were going to do something this year, this was it.”

The Vikings will face Midland Park in the opening round of the state tournament this week.

Velazquez still goes to practices and works in non-contact drills.

“I’m still playing soccer with my teammates,” Velazquez said. “I’m just not playing in regular games. I don’t want to get myself down. I just want the chance.”

“That’s what we want,” Luis Velazquez said. “We want him to be able to play again and enjoy himself.”

Velazquez hopes to study physical therapy in college with the hope of becoming an athletic trainer.

“This was all just a little setback,” Velazquez said. “I don’t want to bring myself down. Once I get the transplant, I’ll be fine. I’ll be able to play soccer again and everything will be looking up for me.”

If anyone is interested in being a donor for Jared Velazquez or testing to be a donor, call the Hackensack University Medical Center Transplant Team at (551) 996-2608.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”