By Nikki Ross Inda - June 09, 2021
Rafael Ayala began playing T-ball at age five. Throughout his childhood, he played several different positions for Town and Country Pony Baseball including catcher, third base and outfield.
“Whatever position they needed me in, I gave 100%,” Ayala recalled.
“He always gave his all to the game and his team,” said Rafael’s mother, Gail Rivera.
The little leaguer went on to play baseball at Gaither High School, where he was named captain for his leadership on and off the field. During his senior year, Ayala’s dreams of playing in the major leagues ended abruptly when he collided with another player in the outfield while attempting to field a ball. He fractured his left fibula and needed a rod to help hold his bone in place until it healed. He also lost a scholarship to play baseball at Santa Fe Community College.
Despite his disappointment, Ayala looked for positive ways to stay connected to sports. He worked with his trainer to help encourage other athletes to reach their athletic potential.
But just when life had seemingly returned to normal, Ayala and his family were thrown another curve ball. In November 2019, he lost is grandfather to cancer. Eight months later, just two days before his 24th birthday, Ayala was diagnosed with stage 4 high-grade B-cell Burkitt lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I was built for this,” Ayala said.
“It’s a place Burkitt lymphoma likes to hide,” said Rivera.
Ayala was hesitant to share this intimate detail at first, but he decided this was the best way he can help encourage other young adults who may be going through similar life defining challenges.
On June 11, Ayala will undergo a stem cell transplant at Moffitt. His 22-year-old brother Javier will serve as his donor.
“Scientifically, we will be DNA twins,” Ayala said.
Javier always looked up to his older brother, but this time it’s Ayala’s turn to look up to his younger sibling. He credits his little brother with helping to save his life.
“Rafael has impressed me so much throughout this fight,” said Rivera. “He’s such a kid at heart, so playful and funny, yet brave, mature and knows what he needs to do. He’s driven and determined to beat this horrible disease. He wants to push through for his siblings, for me and his dad, and for his dog, Koda. He has faith and knows he has an army of prayer warriors out there.”
Ayala is thankful for his Moffitt medical team, including his physician Dr. Bijal Shah, the nurses and even Kathy, the security officer who he affectionately refers to as his Moffitt mom, for keeping him motivated and encouraged.
“I remember one day as we were on our way to Moffitt,” Rivera said. “I was telling Rafi how hard this year has been and he turned to me and said, ‘It hasn’t been all bad, it’s brought us closer.’ Through all his hardship, he finds the good in it. He’s my rock, my hero and my gladiator. I’m a proud mama!”
Ayala and his family recently attended a Tampa Bay Rays game where they met manager Kevin Cash, also a Gaither High School graduate. Rafael was honored by the Rays through their Salute to Survivor Program.