Missouri native Ray Saari, a skilled midfielder who started playing soccer before he started kindergarten, has always been driven: He comes from a competitive family, played three sports at age 11, and knew by the time he was a teenager that he wanted nothing more than to be a professional soccer player.
“I would lose sleep at night when I was 13 just thinking about how badly I wanted to play professionally,” Saari said. He felt he had a shot, too. During his sophomore year of high school, he was playing better than ever and was determined to work harder than anyone to set himself up for a professional career.
Focused on that goal and absorbed in the game, 15-year-old Saari ignored a cough that developed during soccer season at the beginning of sophomore year — he didn’t want to address any kind of illness while he was conditioning. When the season ended but the cough didn’t, he went to the hospital, expecting to be told that he had pneumonia.
An X-ray revealed something much worse: Saari had Stage 4B testicular cancer, which had metastasized in seven places in his lungs.
A long and complicated process began then, in which Saari spent every third week in the hospital for chemotherapy. During those weeks, he had four treatments with three different types of chemo in each treatment. When he wasn’t doing chemo, he still had to go into the hospital frequently to receive shots and have blood drawn.
Neither the diagnosis nor the six months of chemo that followed it, however, was able to break Saari’s competitive spirit.
“One of the first things that I said to my mom after the diagnosis was that I didn’t want people to think that I was worse when I came back,” Saari said. “I was really good before, and I was afraid that people would think I was a different player because of the diagnosis. My mom, who is also a competitive person, just said: ‘Then don’t let them say that.’ So, it was that simple. I just wasn’t going to let it happen.”
To stay on top of his game, Saari did as much of a fitness routine as he could handle while he was at the hospital. And despite the dangers of playing a sport while doing chemo — his body had a weak immune system and lacked the ability to clot wounds — Saari never stopped playing soccer. “I would go to this place called the Soccer Dome and play with all my friends,” he said. “I didn’t really think about (the dangers). My parents probably worried, but playing was the only thing that really made me happy at the time. Having soccer as an outlet definitely helped me get through that period of my life.”
Saari’s intense focus on soccer throughout his chemo treatments was partially possible thanks to his competitive mindset; he also recognizes, however, that his experience with cancer was particularly lucky. He never got sick while on chemo — perhaps thanks to his physical fitness — and he barely missed any school, as his treatment weeks always landed during a holiday break or a huge snowstorm that canceled classes. And when he finished his treatments, doctors were able to remove six of the seven tumors in his lungs — all of which were malignant.
Saari only missed a month of the following soccer season, which he went into with a zeal that allowed him to regain his strength and skill in little time. When it came time to go to college, he chose University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, because he knew it would give him a shot at playing professionally.
After a successful four-year career there, Saari was briefly disillusioned during his senior year when he didn’t make it to the Major League Soccer draft, which is typically the first step to finding a place on an MLS team. But the feeling of disappointment didn’t last long.
“I went from thinking that my career was over, to the next month, signing (with the Seattle Sounders FC 2); two weeks later I was called up to play with the first team at CenturyLink,” he said. “It was such a whirlwind. I just had emotions everywhere after I finished school, and I had been working to play professionally my whole life and thinking that maybe I hadn’t done something right or hadn’t pushed myself enough. But then I was rewarded, then rewarded even more.”
Now in his second year with the Sounders 2, Saari is leading the team in its first season at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium. He is, however, still in the process of proving himself: The Sounders 2 is a step below the Sounders, which is the team that is a part of MLS. A lot of players from the S2 team end up playing for the Sounders — whether that is for a few games or under a new contract that welcomes them as an official player. Saari, who played with the Sounders three times in his first year, hopes to earn himself a spot on the team.
Even in such a competitive and high-stakes environment, Saari has not lost sight of his gratitude for the sport and his ability to continue to play it. “I play a game for a living,” Saari said, shaking his head. “I’m very lucky, and I think I’m probably more thankful than a lot of other people are.”
It may be a cliché, he admitted, but his experience with cancer made him realize that he could do anything he put his mind to. “When I got diagnosed, I never thought about dying for a second,” he said. “The only thing I focused on was the moment I would get to start playing again. Going through chemo took me away from the only thing that I wanted to do — I had something that was literally holding me back. But once that wasn’t in the way anymore, there wasn’t any reason why I shouldn’t get out and just do it.”
Now, Saari does just that: He gets out and plays — and hopes that his hard work and good luck continue to propel him forward in his career as a professional player.