Before every game last season, College of the Canyons quarterback Andrew Brito received a text message from his New Jersey-based dad. Typically, it was a photo of a tiger.
“Motivational texts just telling me to keep working,” Brito said. “Our motto has always been the ‘eye of the tiger’ because we love Rocky so much.”
In January, the roles were reversed. After a tumor began to grow in his dad’s liver, it was Andrew who was the one that was sending motivational messages. True to his stubborn nature, each message or photo was sent with the faith that his father, Anthony, would overcome the cancer.
After a successful season that resulted in the 5-foot-10 Brito, who carries himself with a specific confident-but-not-too-cocky air that only Jersey-bred people can get away with, being named the 2017 SCFA National Division, Northern League Offensive Player of the Year, football was the focus. His hope that his father would recover never wavered.
When February came, Anthony’s health worsened. On a Friday night, a typically uneventful time around the COC football facilities, coach Ted Iacenda received an urgent call from Brito’s mom. Andrew needed to board a plane to New Jersey, and fast.
“I’ll never forget that,” Iacenda said. “…I had just seen Andrew. He was walking down the field to work out with some of his buddies. Unscripted, unplanned … three minutes later I walk into my office to get what I came here to get and his mom calls.”
Up until his arrival at home, Brito called his dad on a daily basis. The calls were one of the only things that could get his pained father to stand up and walk around. When he arrived in New Jersey, Anthony was unable to move, but still couldn’t hide his excitement at the sight of his son.
“Seeing me and my older brother it was just like, it was just like it made his heart warm,” Brito said. “His eyes would shoot up, like he was on a lot of meds, too, for the pain, so he would immediately just like, that’s my son right there.”
“It was definitely hard, but just me and my father, we just always shared this strong relationship and that’s just how I wanted to keep it until the end.”
Brito’s time with his dad was short. He arrived in New Jersey on Feb. 18. Anthony died at 3:54 a.m. on Feb. 21 at 47 years old.
The news sent a shockwave through him so strong that he didn’t even cry.
“All I saw was my brother running out the door, running to the car to just get there to see him one last time,” he said. “I had already figured that he wasn’t going to make it so every time I left I would say “Goodbye, I love you.’”
When he returned to campus, Brito’s Cougar family was waiting and ready to embrace him. Forrest Carter bought a card that every single player signed, which now sits next to a card from Brito’s high school team at his apartment.
His roommate and Canyons defensive back Shaddrick Lowery didn’t see a drastic emotional change in Brito, but could sense that something was a little bit different.
“’Drew is the type of person like, when something is wrong with him, he doesn’t show it,” Lowery said, “but you can tell, it sparked a fire in him. Like, he has a chip on his shoulder now, like he always had it in him, but it brought something out in him. Something else.”
Brito wasted no time getting back to work. Motivated by his recent experience, he was at every workout. The fiery quarterback refused to see a counselor, but quietly confided in Iacenda whenever he needed.
His teammates were always at the ready to help and motivate him, but it ended up being Brito that helped unite his team. On a Thursday night, Brito insisted on reciting the “Cougar Prayer,” an essential part of COC football’s identity. It was an emotional night that Iacenda recalled with tears nearly welling up.
“I want these kids to be around each other and enjoy being around each other and play for something besides themselves,” said the coach. “…That, to me, is more rewarding when you see your boys and you realize they’re great kids, they’re great football players … they’re there for each other. That’s worth more than any win or loss ever.”
Last season, Brito neared the single-season record for passing yards. This year, Iacenda believes he could surpass the career record as well as secure a Division 1 scholarship.
If he reaches that mark, or achieves any accolade this season, he’ll do it with his dad in mind.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder when I play the game, but now I feel like I truly have, like, a reason to go out there and just continue what basically me and my father had just been trying to work for since I was a kid.
“I feel him right next to me. I feel him keep telling me, like, keep going, keep going.”