Justo Polanco remembers.
He remembers when his mom, Augustina, was diagnosed in 2005. He remembers watching her abdomen swell from a tumor. He remembers when she checked into the hospital, the exact date of that lonely night when he was 9:
July 18, 2006.
"My younger brother and I were at home together and I just felt like something happened, something had told me she'd passed," said Justo, who grew up in the Dominican Republic.
His uncle Radame came by the house that night to confirm what the boy already knew.
"I didn't feel like I had anything at all. I felt like I had nothing left," he recalled.
Things would get worse before they would get better, but today the 16-year-old shines as a promising center for the Middleton Tigers. Coaches consider the sophomore a cornerstone.
Justo survives by his personal motto, "Push on through it." It's a concept that both saved his life and positioned him where he is today.
"He's a very strong-willed, tough kid," offensive line coach Derrick Rackard said.
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Justo Polanco grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Dominican Republic, and his father, Isaias, moved to the United States to try to build a life for the family here when he was 6.
Three years later, in 2005, his mother came to the States with Justo, his older brother and younger sister. Less than a year later, Justo was trying to figure out how to push on through without his mother.
All the setbacks and adjustments made school difficult: the shock of losing his mother, having to improve his English and struggling to identify with, well, anyone.
"Kids would tease me in school about not being able to say something right, then they'd say something about my mom," he recalled. "I would always warn them, my mom passed away and to please stop."
The mocking did not end, but the fighting began. Justo was suspended twice from school for fighting. A lot of his pent-up anger haunted his childhood.
"I would see other kids' moms giving them hugs after the game," he recalled. "I started to blame myself, then God. I would curse to the sky. I would ask why he would take her."
Things hit rock bottom when he was in fifth grade at Potter Elementary. "I got to where I didn't want to leave the house. I wanted to die. I wanted to be with my mom."
School officials provided counseling. It took time, but he eventually stopped blaming himself.
"I started to realize that no one lives forever and that God had just decided it was her time."
Some guardian angels entered Justo's life at that critical time. He recalls Ferrell Middle Magnet School coach Avery Doss relating a story about the grandmother he lost and credits Doss with helping him make peace with the situation. Ferrell teacher Patty Hall also entered his life.
"She comes to every one of my games, even now at Middleton. She was a big part of my life and still is."
Justo made the Middleton varsity roster as a freshman last year. He immediately made an impact on the offensive line, starting in all 11 games, including the preseason classic.
The Tigers did not win a game in 2011, but Justo's loyalty to Middleton and Tigers head coach Alonzo Ashwood remains strong even in the face of an already ominous-looking 2012.
"I saw what Coach Ashwood was trying to build last year and I thought, 'Let's try it,' " he said. "My dad and my brother always told me that sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, no one is perfect but that you've got to give 120 percent."
His brother, Louis, a starting guard at Western Kentucky, says coaches are already asking about his younger brother, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 285.
He has dropped 50 pounds since last year. "I just committed to eating more salads, cutting out soda altogether."
He credits Rackard's running regimen for much of the weight loss. "It gives me more confidence on and off the field," Justo said.
With his newfound hope and his angels — Ashwood, Rackard, Doss and Hall — Justo is winning the battle.
"Now I have learned to appreciate all of the things I do have," he said. "I'm thankful for (Mom) giving birth to me and I know that she's looking down on me."
He carries a photograph of his mother everywhere he goes.
"In the picture, she's smiling; it helps me push on through."
Andy Warrener can be reached at [email protected]