When Juliana Santos was 11 years old, her family laid “can’t” to rest.
Seriously, they took turns writing the word on a piece of paper, then buried it in the backyard.
“That’s where it is today,” Ralph Santos, her father, said. “We just kept it very simple.”
That philosophy has guided the Tigers’ senior shortstop and captain through a decade-long battle with Crohn’s disease, and, 10 years after being told her softball career was over, Santos is on the cusp of overcoming the odds once again by helping lead upstart LSU to the Women’s College World Series.
When she takes the field in this weekend’s super regional at No. 8 seed Missouri, Santos will be a long way from the young girl with the mystery illness from Newman, Calif.
“I’m lucky to be where I am today with my disease,” she said. “Being able to make it this far is just incredible.”
And softball has been involved the whole way.
Growing up in Newman, Calif., a small town of about 10,000 that sits inland from San Jose, Santos picked up softball at age 8, joined a travel team and began dreaming of a long career. But the next year nearly marked the beginning of the end.
She started feeling sick, with symptoms ranging from vomiting to blotchy skin, cold sores and chills — even in the California heat.
“Nothing would make me feel better,” she said.
Doctor visits and tests followed over the next two years but revealed nothing, and excessive stress was labeled as the cause.
Until one day, when Santos’ mother, Yvette, convinced the family doctor to send her to the hospital for further testing.
There, a mammogram of Santos’ stomach again turned up nothing. But then the family spotted a radiologist with a familiar face, the mother of one of Santos’ new softball teammates.
“So we talked for a minute, and she went in there and asked her friend, another radiologist, to just check one more time and look a little lower,” Ralph Santos said. “That’s when they found it.”
Doctors spotted a large tumor and thought it was stomach cancer, but when it turned up benign, they had to look elsewhere and identified the real culprit: Crohn’s, a bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system, stomach pain, non-stop vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss, among other symptoms.
A foot-long section of Santos’ intestine was removed, she was placed on a slew of medications, and doctors told her she would never play softball again.
Recovery was possible — the NFL’s David Garrard and Matt Light are two examples — but even if Santos did enjoy a remarkable return, she was at least a year away from any kind of rigorous activity.
She would have to give up softball, at the ripe old age of 11.
“I was young, and I was always like, ‘Why me? Why would this happen to me?’” Santos said. “But my parents never let me feel sorry for myself.”
That’s when the family held the burial service for “can’t,” and instead of giving in, Santos got a personal trainer and started working.
“At first, I could hardly do anything. I could hardly jog down the block,” she said. “I was back on the field in six months.”
Santos went on to star at Newman’s Orestimba High, leading her team to an undefeated 2007 season, two section championships and two MVP awards. When it came time to choose a college, she picked LSU in part because of team trainer Ana Couture, who’s familiar with Crohn’s because her brother also has the illness.
Once in Baton Rouge, Santos was a hit right away. She started all but one game as a freshman, leading the team in runs and being named to the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team.
Life hasn’t been perfect, as she still takes 23 pills per day and had to undergo bowel surgery in November. On top of that, her diet forbids her from eating common foods like lettuce, grains, wheat or tomato sauce, and she often tires quickly in the sun.
But the struggle has had a silver lining. She provides guidance to others affected by Crohn’s, and one young girl suffering from the illness drove eight hours with her family to meet Santos when the Tigers played at Kentucky this season.
“I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to help people, and that helps me too,” Santos said. “At the end of the day, I can help. Being at LSU has made me able to help people.”
And her bout with Crohn’s has given Santos a new appreciation for her career, along with a manic work ethic and a determination not to let the disease hold her back.
She has remained a fixture in the Tigers lineup, and this season, she’s second on the team in batting average (.257) and RBIs (22), to go with a .986 fielding average.
Perhaps more importantly, she’s blossomed into a respected leader, so much so that her teammates voted her captain before this season, making her the first player in program history to have a “C” emblazoned on her jersey.
“Her skill set is similar to other people, but her heart and desire and how bad she wants it, that makes her a really elite-level player,” LSU coach Beth Torina said.
Now, Santos again faces the threat of seeing her softball career come to a close. This time, it won’t be Crohn’s standing in her way, it’s the Missouri Tigers.
The odds would favor Mizzou to win at home and claim a spot in the Women’s College World Series.
Just don’t tell Santos — or LSU — they can’t.