As William Tennent football star Tommy Santiago prepares to make his professional boxing debut on March 27, his mother Brenda said she feels for his opponent.
“Tommy told me that the reason he likes football and boxing is that he has a hatred inside, a frustration and resentment at everything our family has been through,” she said. “He’s training hard, and really wants it. He really wants to go out there and do things. He wants to help his family.”
Santiago will take on Angel Vasquez, of Springfield, Massachusetts, in a four-round, light-heavyweight contest as part of Raging Babe’s Philly Special card at South Philadelphia’s 2300 Arena.
So what sparked this “frustration and resentment” in Santiago? It all started in 2017, after he and Brenda, along with his father Milton Sr. and brothers Milton Jr. and Nicco, moved to a fixer-upper in the suburbs.
For a little while, all was well. Santiago enrolled at Archbishop Wood, where he became a standout running back, scoring 20 touchdowns and gaining nearly 1,700 yards as a junior. Meanwhile, Brenda worked at a kitchen gadget manufacturing company, and her husband served as a talented painter for prestigious home builders in Philadelphia.
But shortly after the move, Milton Sr.’s health deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with kidney failure and an infection that had spread to his bones. Brenda stepped in as caregiver, waking Milton Jr. up each morning at 5:30 a.m. to help carry his dad to the car for dialysis appointments. Wheelchair bound and unable to walk, Milton Sr. no longer attended Santiago’s games.
“I was embarrassed,” said Milton Sr. “I was depressed and I kept wondering why this is happening to me and my family.”
Last May, the once strong and healthy boxing coach stopped breathing for nearly two minutes during a procedure to biopsy a growth in his lungs, and had to be resuscitated. The Santiagos were warned that there would most likely be permanent brain damage.
“It was the worst moment of my life,” said Santiago. “When I walked in and saw my dad in the ICU, knowing he might never be the same, I just started crying. I couldn’t handle it.”
Following this earth-shattering event, excruciating headaches and short-term memory loss became the new norm for Milton Sr. In order to ease his family’s financial burdens, Santiago made the decision to transfer to William Tennent. While this cut his tuition in half (Nicco stayed at Wood), it almost guaranteed that college offers he and his parents dreamed of would never come.
“Tommy is very strong, and he’s taken a lot for the family,” Brenda said. “It’s a burden I have on me because I want to be able to give them everything. Milton’s dream was for Tommy to go to Wood. It devastated Tommy and us when he had to transfer.”
Currently, Milton Sr. receives dialysis five times per week for six hours, and waits to be added to the kidney donor list.
“It would mean the world to my family to find a donor,” Santiago said. “My mom stays up late to take care of him and gets up early the next day to go to work. She never gives up.”
Santiago has learned a lot from his parents, especially the importance of sacrifice, mental strength and unwavering commitment to loved ones.
“Seeing all they’ve been through has been hard, but it makes me want to go harder,” he said. “I just want to be able to bring my family to the next level.”
So far, Santiago received an offer from Villanova, and is waiting to hear back from Temple and Penn State. He has aspirations of being an NFL player and professional boxer, the latter of which has been achieved by Milton Jr., an undefeated lightweight.
When Santiago enters the ring later this month, he intends to be fiercely focused as he seeks to bring his family into a happier chapter. All the while, his father’s voice will catapult every punch and kick.
Philly Special kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 27. Tickets priced at $50, $75 and $125 are on sale now, and can be purchased by visiting 2300arena.com or calling 267-273-0945.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org