At first glance, Bobby Chavez appears to be a typical high school wrestler with a jovial personality and a drive to compete.
But Chavez, a 182-pounder for West Albany High, is far from ordinary. The senior is lucky to be alive.
After multiple brain surgeries and 15-plus years of living with epilepsy, Chavez has been seizure-free since last summer. The only visible reminder of Chavez’s traumatic past — a large, curved scar above the left ear — is concealed by his bushy, black mane.
“It’s been really awesome and I appreciate what the doctors did for me so I wouldn’t have any more seizures in my life,” said Chavez, who is seeded second in his weight class for the Greater Valley Conference championships. The two-day tournament runs Friday and Saturday at McKay High in Salem with the top four placers in each bracket advancing to the 6A state championships.
“Honestly I just feel way better overall and for sports, it doesn’t bother me to do them anymore because I know I won’t have a seizure. I’m just happy for where I’m at now.”
A two-time state competitor, Chavez qualified at 182 as a sophomore and bumped up to 195 last season. He is back at 182 after cutting out fast food and playing soccer in the fall.
Chavez is one of eight West Albany wrestlers to receive a top-four seed for the GVC championships.
“I think the biggest thing for Bobby is his work ethic,” said junior Trona Free, the No. 3 seed at 152. “In practice, I always see him running faster than the other kids. He is always pushing himself to be a district placer or a state placer.”
Chavez’s harrowing journey began early in life when he underwent emergency brain surgery to drain an abscess that was the size of a softball. The procedure left scarring (a cyst) that was not operable at the time.
By 2016, removal had become an option.
“The doctor said with the new technology they’ve got, they felt it was safer to do the surgery,” Chavez said. “And from what they had seen off the X-ray of my head, they said they would have a chance of taking it out and making my seizures go away.”
Chavez underwent another brain surgery in July, and the seizures vanished.
After about four weeks, he was able to resume moderate physical activity. Chavez played a full season of soccer and showed up for wrestling in tremendous shape.
“To watch where he has come from this summer, it just gives you the goose bumps,” West coach Casey Horn said. “He spends a week in Doernbecher (Children’s Hospital) and six months later he’s wrestling on a mat and maybe for a district title. That’s almost one of those ESPN stories.”
Chavez was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2007. To care for the condition, Chavez took medication and was regularly monitored.
Prior to last summer’s surgery, he would have about two or three seizures per month. Heat and physical activity occasionally triggered the convulsions.
“The seizures weren’t that big; they were the ones where you’d usually just freeze and space out,” Chavez said. “But I had them whenever I was tired or tiring myself out.”
But Chavez didn’t let epilepsy prevent him from participating in sports.
As an eighth-grader, Chavez joined the wrestling program at Memorial Middle School. He’s competed on that mat ever since.
“Right away I loved it and I started going every day,” Chavez remembered. “I was wrestling with my friends and just getting better and better.”
Chavez is one of a large group of West seniors who have been with the program for several years.
Fellow 12th-grader Caulin Leach, the No. 2 seed at 195, has trained with Chavez for the past three seasons. Leach and Chavez wound up flipping spots in the lineup this winter.
“He’s a pretty strong guy and he makes me stronger,” Leach said. “Last year he was a 95-pounder and I was an 82-pounder, and this year we’ve kind of switched. It’s been different, but during football season I gained weight and he’s been managing his well.”
Chavez also trains with Noah Jackson and Mitchell Sorte, the defending GVC champion at 160. Sorte, a senior, is seeded second at the same weight this year.
The camaraderie in the mat room between all ages and weight classes has contributed to the Bulldogs’ success. West finished the regular season 8-0 in GVC duals.
“I like that our team, we are not just friends. We are a family,” Chavez said. “We do everything together. Go on hikes, go on runs, we go to eat places, we help each other succeed. It’s a big family, so we do whatever we can to help each other.”
For Chavez and the rest of the Bulldogs, the GVC championships represent the beginning of the end.
Only a select few will advance to the season-ending state tournament, slated for Feb. 16-17 in Portland. The Bulldogs sent six wrestlers to state last year and seven in 2016.
With a district championship on the line, Chavez isn’t ready to be done.
“He’s got a long way to go, but for him to be where he’s at now is remarkable and an accomplishment,” Horn said. “He’s going to be a very big contender for a district title.”