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West Valley’s Jace Malek signs with Vandals, but cancer detours plans

West Valley High athlete Jace Malek snuggles with his 7-week-old English bulldog, Kemo, in 2015 at his home near Airway Heights.  (Dan Pelle)
West Valley High athlete Jace Malek snuggles with his 7-week-old English bulldog, Kemo, in 2015 at his home near Airway Heights. (Dan Pelle) Buy this photo

It didn’t seem like anything serious at the time.

West Valley standout football player Jace Malek felt some pain in his right hip in a game in late September.

Then in the Eagles’ next-to-last game, Malek took a hit to the hip; the pain came back.

Early in the wrestling season, the pain began to nag again. He went to a chiropractor but it didn’t help. The chiropractor recommended a physical therapist, who recommended getting an MRI.

And there it was, plain as can be, and as big as a cantaloupe: a tumor attached to both sides of the hip.

Malek, who turns 18 in two weeks, is just learning the specific names and spellings of the cancer. A biopsy last week revealed it’s bone cancer. And because of its size, he can’t have it removed yet.

He will begin chemotherapy next week, which could last up to a year. He also will undergo radiation.

As soon as Malek saw the tumor, he called University of Idaho coach Paul Petrino. Malek had given Idaho an oral commitment last fall.

“He wished me the best and said that Idaho would be there the whole time,” Malek said.

Idaho wanted Malek to sign his letter of intent Wednesday, so he did.

“Coach Petrino told me that Idaho isn’t going anywhere and that I had their complete support,” Malek said.

Petrino sent Malek a No. 99 Vandals jersey, the same number he wore at West Valley, for him to wear when he signed his letter of intent.

Petrino said Idaho will honor the scholarship even if Malek can’t play.

“Jace is part of the family,” Petrino said. “He wants to coach. If he can’t play he’ll be a student assistant. We felt terrible for him. He had such a great season in football and was wrestling well. Most important is you hope he gets better.”

Malek and his family were shocked when they saw the MRI revealed Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that affects about 1 in 100,000 10- to 19-year-old Americans, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“The tumor had to be in there some time for it to be that large,” said Malek’s mother, Anna Ackerman. “When his hip got hit, it was hit just right that it irritated it enough. That was a blessing. It let us know it was there.”

Malek had a full body scan earlier this week and some smaller tumors were found in his chest.

“The doctor said they’re related to the hip,” Ackerman said. “The doctor said it’s not a good thing, it lessens your chances of getting cured. But he said it’s still curable.”

The cancer diagnosis has shifted Malek’s goals. He’d always hoped to play in college. Now he dreams of being a football coach.

“If I can’t (play) then I want to do an internship with a coach at Idaho,” he said. “I want to learn every piece of the coaching game, inside and out. That will definitely set me up well for the first coaching job I get.”

Malek knows that playing football again may not be in the picture.

“I’m preparing myself for what I think reality is going to be,” he said. “I don’t need to hurt myself any more. I’m just going to do what I need to do. I’m going to attack this straight on and do what I have to do to beat it.”

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