KRISTI'S KREW: Amarantos' reflect on cancer journey as football season begins
HOUSTON - Through an open door at the end of a hallway, Kristi Amarantos started her what would be an 11-step walk. Midway through she placed her hands together in front of her and then came to a stop. Reaching out with her right hand she grabbed the white braided rope attached to the bell and gave it one ring.
That moment was the signal that her 7-week and 33 radiation treatment sessions to fight the NUT carcinoma (NMC) cancer discovered in her neck in early June were complete.
As the resonating sound of the bell echoed, she dropped her face into her open palms, turned around and embraced her husband of 25 years, Spiro, with her sons Carter and Cooper and mother clapping as they surrounded her.
"When I went over to ring the bell, I was already losing it before I got to the bell," Kristi said. "As soon as I rang the bell, I distinctly remember Spiro rubbing my back. When I turned to him, he was already crying and then it just made me break down."
While doing all of this, Kristi was wearing, what she now deems her lucky hat -- a black Galena Park Yellowjackets ball cap. The school where her - Class of 1990 and Colonel of the Drill Team - and Spiro - Class of 1990 and Football Captain - met, fell in love over 30 years ago and now where he is the head football coach.
"When I put on a cap, it's a GP cap," Kristi, who confirmed she was indeed wearing the hat during our phone interview, said with a laugh. "So many people noticed that was the cap I was wearing that day. It was so fitting. I wouldn't have worn any other hat that day. I think when you have cancer, you become superstitious. You hold on to everything that could give you hope.
"That was just my lucky hat. I wear it all the time."
Spiro added: "It was gratifying and emotional for her and us. It was super emotional. She's a tough bird. She's a Yellowjacket at heart. Growing up on the Eastside, she's got a little Eastside toughness in her. It was something special."
A week later, Kristi was back at the bell, ringing to signal the end of her chemotherapy treatment. As we talked on August 20, iut was a week from that day she was starting to feel more herself, following months that included an emergency surgery and aggressive cancer treatment.
"Today is the first day I can tell that I'm turning the corner and feeling better," Kristi said.
A Trying Summer
The summer for the Amarantos family has been a rough one, to say the least.
It started with their youngest son Cooper Amarantos, who plays football at Kingwood High School, tearing his ACL. A few weeks later, Kristi was diagnosed and had to be rushed in for an emergency surgery. As soon as she got out, Sprio's father Kosta passed away June 16, right before Father's Day weekend.
"It was a lot that hit us at one time," Spiro said.
Before any of this happened, life was normal for the Amarantos'. They had just gotten back from celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in Savannah, Georgia and that's when Kristi noticed a swollen gland in her neck about the size of a "gumball". It wasn't causing too much pain.
Over the next couple of weeks, it swelled up under her jaw and started causing more and more pain.
"We didn't know what it was, we weren't thinking cancer at all," Spiro said. "But we knew it was something that needed to be taken care of."
Doctors knew they had to get it out. On June 3, Kristi was rushed in for emergency surgery to remove between 11 and 13 lymph nodes in her neck.
"She just wanted an opportunity to fight this thing," Spiro said. "That's all she wanted because we knew at that point it was super aggressive and super rare. We had to get it out of her, that was the No. 1 thing."
They gave Kristi three weeks to heal - which is typically four to six weeks - and then started aggressive and targeted radiation treatment and corresponding chemo treatment.
Football Taking a Backseat
As this was happening during the summer, which is typically still a semi-busy time for football coaches with strength and conditioning, 7-on-7 and preparing for fall practice in August, Spiro had to lean on his coaching staff.
For him, football was the farthest thing from his mind in June.
"[My coaching staff] picked up the pieces for me," Spiro said. "Just seeing them pick up the slack and do everything they needed to get done, it allowed me to concentrate and focus on Kristi and the boys. I'm so blessed. I couldn't have done it without them."
The radiation treatments were five days a week, which Spiro tried to make a majority of, but for the four-hour chemotherapy treatments every Friday he was right by Kristi's side.
"That was our time together," Kristi said. "While getting chemo, we tried really hard to not talk about cancer and all the things we were fearful of. We also tried not to spend that day talking about work. So, it was just our time together. Then he just put on his hat and went back to work the next day."
Spiro added: "Most of the time we both slept. Being there with her and for her made it all worth while. I just didn't want her to be alone and feel like she was going through it by herself. Football was the last thing on my mind, to be honest with you."
Telling the Team
Telling the coaching staff at Galena Park was one thing but for Spiro telling the team was a totally different step.
He didn't tell them until early August once camp had resumed. Throughout the summer he didn't want his players worried about him and just focus on having a fun and productive summer. But then, some of his players noticed he was missing more than normal. They texted. They called.
"They could tell," Spiro said. "I wasn't present a lot. Even when I was there, I was taking care of things that needed to be taken care of and that's not what they're used to."
On a Thursday night sitting at home, Spiro's phone flashed with a text. It was from senior defensive end Isaac Covarrubias asking him if he was OK.
Spiro responded with "I'm fine".
"Well, I'm just worried about you, you just don't seem yourself," Covarrubias' text back read.
It was that interaction that prompted him to tell his team. At Galena Park, they talk about family all the time and "in everything we do".
"It was tough to tell them," Spiro, who is a private person, said. "It was hard to sit them down and tell them. These are kids and I've got two of my own - a 17 and 20-year-old. It's tough to look into those kids eyes because they know you're hurting too."
Since telling the team, the text messages have poured in from the team. Thoughts and prayers flowed in and for Spiro it shows the impact they have made with their "Family" motto and what they focus on on a daily basis.
"We're doing what we said we were going to do," Spiro said. "We wanted to build relationships with these kids and it's not just about us building with them but them building with us. They feel it."
Back to Football!
This Friday, Galena Park will open its 2021 season at home against Baytown Lee at 7 p.m. inside Galena Park ISD Stadium and like any coach's wife, Kristi plans to be in attendance as she will be two weeks removed from her last chemotherapy treatment and feeling "stronger" every day.
"Life supersedes football but football is part of our life," Kristi said. "This is one of those moments where we've put things in perspective. We're trying to put all the pieces together again. He's full fledge coaching right now. We've come a long way this summer for that to be able to happen.
"I'm very grateful that's where he is right now and not home."
The week prior, Galena Park was hosting its final scrimmage of the fall and Kristi wanted to go to get out and drive her car to the game. But Spiro denied the request, which is most likely the only time that will work this fall.
"I said this is the one and only time you're going to get to tell me no because I really honestly have never missed a game unless my boys were playing," Kristi said. "I can be away from people, I can be masked up but at some point you're not going to be able to keep me away."
So, when Galena Park runs out of the tunnel come Friday night, you can expect to see Kristi - socially distanced and masked up - cheering them on wearing her lucky black GP hat.
"I can distinctly remember sitting and waiting for surgery when I found out all this happened and asking Spiro, what's about to happen to our life," Kristi said. "I was like, I have so much living left to do, we have so many things left to do with the boys. I told him, football season is coming up. I have to be there. And he's looking at me like I'm crazy.
"So, being in the stands for the first time will be I know for him it'll be emotional seeing me in the stands. And for me just being able to be back doing what I always do with him will be very special to me."
Spiro added: "Thinking about it right now, I may not be able to look up there. It may be too emotional but I'll know she's there."
The next step for the Amarantos family is more healing and then on September 2 they will go in for scans to see if the surgery and treatment essentially worked.
On September 8 and 9, they will go and meet with their oncology team to get the news of what the scans showed. But between now and then it will be life as normal, including trading in chemo Fridays for football Fridays just like it has always been.
"Between now and then, we're just going to live," Kristi said. "Of course, we're improvising and I can't be at every little thing right now but we're trying to make everything not about cancer. I want him to come home and tell me the things you normally tell me. Tell me about the players and how practice went."