AYER -- Looking at Ayer-Shirley football captain Mike Montoya, you wouldn't think he is nothing more than the average high school football player. The five-foot-seven 160 lb. senior is pound-for-pound one tough customer on the gridiron.
On Friday night, you can hear Montoya pushing his teammates onward with positive words of encouragement. The Panthers have had a tough season under first-year head coach Jason Rivers at 1-9 coming into Thanksgiving morning, but the team continues to make positive strides. Montoya has been one of the pivotal components of the rebuilding process at Ayer-Shirley High School.
Walking onto the practice field, Montoya has that aura around him even though he isn't the biggest guy on the team; he makes up for it with a strong will and outlook on life. Football has been a part of Montoya's life ever since he was young, and he looks forward to taking the field each and every time he gets the opportunity.
Montoya went to the doctor during the summer of his freshman year, like many football players do before practice begins in late August. He didn't get the usual clean bill of health -- instead Montoya was given some tough news to swallow.
"When I was coming into my freshman year, over the summer I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma," said Montoya. I never thought anything like that would ever happen to me."
Montoya didn't allow cancer to slow him down; he still went to school during treatment. Montoya's biggest fear was to fall behind in school, and have to graduate school with kids much younger than him.
"The doctors always told me to stay in the hospital for a couple extra days to make sure I was fine," said Montoya. "I always told them no. Let me go. I still have a life, and I didn't want (cancer) to slow me down."
Montoya is a true student-athlete. He strives to push himself to exhaustion whether it is mentally or physically in whatever he does. Montoya needs no outside motivation, he is internally driven to make the most out of every situation.
Junior offensive guard Anthony Burwell, a close teammate of Montoya's, thinks very highly of his captain. "He always goes all out. In the weight room he always pushes everyone if you are falling behind," said Barnwell. "He is a true captain. He always steps up. He is my best friend. I consider him my brother."
Montoya always pushes himself to be better, and lifts everyone up with his hardworking and laid-back demeanor. Education is something that Montoya takes very seriously. So seriously that he does not hesitate to help out his teammates with their school work.
"He is a good student and is very patient," said junior offensive guard Alan Burwell. "He helped me through some classes. Last year he helped me with biology. He studies, and has a lot of respect for his teachers and the people around him."
Players and coaches talk all the time about how difficult of a sport football is, but after defeating cancer, football appears to be nothing more than child's play.
Ayer-Shirley's 2012 squad has just four seniors, and Montoya's positive leadership is a vivid bright spot. Rivers feels that without Montoya his team would have a completely different dynamic.
"He is 90 percent of why we still have the kids coming to practice," said Rivers. He is positive. He has already beaten the biggest battle he will ever have in his life. "
Montoya has received interest from Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., for their sprint football program. Sprint football has been around since 1942, and it is intended for players 172 lbs. and under. Franklin Pierce recently completed their inaugural season. The Ravens compete in the eight-team Collegiate Sprint Football League. Montoya is still waiting to hear back from Franklin Pierce to see if they have the major he is interested in, civil engineering.
"I can see him making an impact right away in a league like that," said Rivers. "He will be a positive addition to any football team or project team."
When Rivers took over the Panthers' coaching job, the first person everyone talked about was Montoya. Montoya is an inspiration to his teammates and anyone who has had the pleasure of speaking or playing with him. Nothing can stop Montoya, not even cancer.
"To overcome something hard like that, you look at everything else as small," said Montoya. "If you remember what you have done, you can accomplish anything. Nothing will get in your way."