Inside the left brim of Colorado State softball coach Jen Fisher’s visor, there is a message that promotes something much bigger than the outcome on the field. It reads: #MaleaStrong.
Malea Perea-Martinez was born on Oct. 30, 2015 to her parents Melissa and Jeremy. Melissa Martinez just finished her fifth season as an assistant coach on the Colorado State University softball team after being brought on in 2011 by Fisher.
The two met when Martinez played for Fisher all the way down in La Junta, Colorado at Otero Junior College. She transferred to CSU-Pueblo to finish her eligibility, and it was there when she received a call from Fisher, who was in need of an assistant coach. They coached together for a season at Otera before Fisher became the head coach at Metro State, allowing Martinez to take over head coaching duties. Four years later, Fisher was hired at CSU and she immediately brought her friend along as an assistant.
After her wedding, which Fisher was a part of, Martinez coached the 2015 season pregnant with her daughter, something that filled the entire team with excitement.
“We were super excited,” senior second baseman Taryn Arcarese said. “We love her as a person and always loved her as a coach. Seeing her take those next steps in her life…we couldn’t wait for the baby to come.”
The day finally came for little Malea to be born and the family was met with troublesome news. She had been born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), meaning she had no immune system to help fight off any potential sickness. Malea lacked the T-cells that help fight off bacteria and prevent illness.
Most children born with this disease are admitted almost immediately to the hospital to avoid potential dangers at home, including pets and siblings that could make the baby sick. Fortunately for the Perea-Martinez family, they had just moved into a new home with no pets and Malea was their first child. The doctors allowed Malea to come home, but it was not without a catch.
The family had to live in isolation for six months before Malea could receive a transplant to help boost her T-cell levels. The only people who came over were Melissa and Jeremy’s parents. Before the transplant, they had to wear a mask, gown and gloves to avoid infecting Malea. One of the parents also had to stay home with Malea all day to watch over her and prevent contact with any kind of bacteria.
Martinez assumed those duties, forcing her to step away from the softball team in order to care for her daughter.
“Obviously we wanted what was best for coach Martinez and Malea so we understood she had to step away and put all her focus towards Malea,” Arcarese said. “No parent should have to go through that situation…we were just sending all our prayers towards that precious little baby.”
Stepping away from softball was only the beginning as the family found out in January 2016 that Malea required a bone marrow transplant to help her start producing her own T-cells. The operation was completed on April 29th and Malea finally had a proper amount of T-cells.
That was until mid-June when the doctors found out that Malea’s body had been slowly rejecting her medicine, causing the T-cell levels to decline. The only option was to try a new medicine and test it for a month.
She started the new medicine with only 17 percent donor cells. In one month, however, she was back up to 95 percent, the level she was at after the transplant.
“In one month it turned around from 17 percent to 95 percent which knocked everybody’s socks off,” Martinez said. “It was a total miracle…nobody expected that at all, so we are just very thankful for that.”
Through it all, Malea showed great strength. She literally smiled in the face of adversity by giving a grin at every turn, even after chemotherapy treatments forced her to throw up after drinking her bottle.
“You knew she felt not very good because you could see it in her face,” Melissa said. “She would just smile and giggle and laugh. She is so strong.”
That strength has inspired the CSU softball team, who has been with Malea and her family through it all. Despite not being able to play with her in person or see her at games, the team was eager to welcome in a new baby to their softball family.
One way the Perea-Martinez family has been able to introduce family friends to Malea is through something they call “window time.” Whoever comes over will sit on the porch outside of the house, call them and put the phone on speaker so they can talk to Malea and hear her while she is playing with her toys in the living room.
The softball team heard about this and thought there would be no better window time than on Malea’s first birthday.
“When they came over for her birthday I just lost it,” Martinez said. “They are just such great role models for Malea and they loved her before she was even born.”
The team joined other members of the family who came to see Malea for the first time and was able to share that moment with them. They saw Malea open all of her presents and witness that unforgettable, adorable smile.
“She is just the happiest little baby ever, she is always smiling,” Arcarese said. “We could tell it meant a lot to coach Martinez that we are still thinking of her even if she isn’t physically here, she’s still with us.”
The team has continued to support Malea and the family through every battle and have used her fight to inspire them throughout the season. All year the team has worn purple bracelets with “#MaleaStrong” on them to remind the girls that at the end of the day, it is just softball.
“Softball is just a sport,” Arcarese said. “When we are out there and we’re doing sprints, it could be so much worse than having to do conditioning. It puts everything in perspective for us a little bit in terms of how blessed we are to be able to play collegiate athletics.”
“We were watching one of the games when they were in Texas and every single one of the girls was wearing Malea’s bracelet,” Martinez said. “It brought us all to tears. It is so amazing that they love us and support us…it makes me get choked up just thinking about it now.”
Those bracelets helped the team discover their attitude for the season which has been to never stop trying, even when the odds are against them.
“There is no such thing as giving up. Even in your darkest times, even when you have hit the lowest of lows there is always something you can look forward to, there is always some glimmer of hope,” Arcarese said on what Malea has taught the team. “I think the team has really used that in our philosophy this year. It’s one more pitch, one more pitch, one more pitch, never give up.”
In addition to the bracelets, before each game the team is handed a “quote card,” as Fisher calls them. The cards have featured pictures of Malea all season to help the team be inspired and play for someone that might not ever get the chance to.
Malea is not stuck indoors all the time now, as she has been able to see some of the world from a stroller with a dome over the top that has adopted the nickname of the “Pope-mobile.”
“Coach said it gets too hot so it has to be about below 60 degrees and she can take her on a walk around the block, but she has to wear a mask and everything else,” Fisher said. “It’s been hard for her.”
That hardship has eased up a bit recently with Malea becoming healthier every day. It also begs the question of whether or not Martinez can return to coaching. For now, she is still focused on taking care of her daughter and waiting until she hears that she is fully recovered.
“I would like to return to coaching, sometimes it’s hard when you have been removed for so long because things change so rapidly,” Martinez said. “Right now I am just kind of focused on Malea and making sure she is healthy.”
Malea is making great strides in her health but still has to be poked and prodded in order to receive monthly boosters to her immune system. Throughout the struggle, her positive attitude has never changed.
The doctors started reducing her medicine in February of this year and have dropped it lower each month. Her current level is going to be maintained for two months as she moves toward her final test. The last test will see if her T-cells will maintain their function without any assistance from outside medicine.
Until then, Malea will be under the watchful eye of her parents who have nothing but love and thankfulness for everything that the softball team has done for them. Through Malea’s courage, the team has learned many lessons on not only softball, but life in general.
Malea may only be 1-and-a-half years old, but she has taught everyone involved in her life what the true heart of a champion is.
“Being a coach you think you know what toughness is, you think you know what strength is, you think you know what being a champion is,” Martinez said. “After being with Malea, she has redefined so many words for me…she is just awesome, I love that kid so much.”
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by Twitter @ajwrules44.