In October, doctors told him the cancer that had wreaked havoc on his body for about a year was terminal.
One of East County’s brightest young soccer stars, Neto could keep going through chemotherapy. He could keep pushing away the inevitable. He could sulk.
But that’s not what Neto wanted to do. He knew he didn’t belong in a hospital or in a bed. He belonged on the pitch. Neto made the best of his situation and kept playing striker for the East Diablo Impact club soccer team.
“I was against it (at first),” said his Impact coach, Keoni Clifford. “It’s not about now, it’s about him 10, 15, 20 years from now. That’s what was so hard for me. But I knew him when he was on the field, and the time that he did spend in chemo, he was miserable.
“He knew what he wanted. Soccer was life.”
Jose “Neto” Corona continued to play indoor soccer for Impact until January. He passed away on Feb. 25.
Playing the beautiful game was a cathartic escape for Neto. He was able to gain notice not as a cancer patient, but as an athlete, which is exactly the way he wanted it.
In addition to wearing memorial arm bands, the team will start each game absent one player, in Neto’s honor. “I’m always going to feel like someone’s missing,” said friend and longtime Impact teammate John Gonzalez. “We’re always going to feel like we’re a man down.”
On Saturday, hundreds of relatives, friends and teammates packed Brentwood’s Immaculate Heart of Mary church for a memorial mass. Afterward, several Impact players released balloons into the sky. Some held personal messages, their final tributes to the player who never wanted to give up.
“Neto, even though I didn’t really know you, I’ll miss you.”
“You’ll always be my favorite player.”
For Neto, soccer was always Plan A. It was also Plans B through Z. He played the sport all throughout childhood and wore No. 9 in honor of his idol, former Real Madrid striker Ronaldo.
In 2010, Neto made Liberty High’s varsity team as a freshman. But unlike many first-year high school athletes, he didn’t just sub in for upperclassmen – Neto excelled. He earned the title of Bay Valley Athletic League Offensive Player of the Year. Neto also drew the attention of the professional Mexican First Division team Monarcas Morelia and spent a year training in its youth academy.
“He just wanted to play soccer,” said Neto’s aunt, Iliana Gonzalez. “That’s his passion. … He didn’t see anything else.”
What Neto’s teammates remember most vividly about him is that he wasn’t content with just showing up. Though Neto wasn’t the biggest guy on the field, he wanted to work hard and succeed at anything he did. His closest friends described him as a pit bull in a Chihuahua’s body.
Neto’s older brother and teammate, Manuel Corona, admired how he never held anything back. Though he wasn’t a vocal “rah-rah” kind of player, he was always one of the team’s biggest sources of motivation.
Neto was always a competitive guy, but not to the point of seriousness. His teammates recall the time during a tournament in Vegas when Neto walked around The Strip in just a Speedo to get some laughs. He was rarely seen without a smile on his face, especially when he was on the soccer field.
In his final days, Neto’s teammates returned the love he constantly gave them. Many of them stayed at the Corona home, doing whatever they could to help the family and keep Neto in high spirits. Relatives also came up from Mexico to help Neto’s parents, Ernesto and Mina Miranda Corona, so they could spend more time with their son.
“I used to refer to him as Superman because he was relentless, he was tenacious, he was passionate,” Clifford said. “If anyone out there is looking for heroes, someone to look up to, he was definitely one.”
MJ’s Downtown Café, 655 First St. in Brentwood, will host a taco night fundraiser on Sunday starting at 5:30 p.m. All proceeds go to the Corona family to help with medical and funeral expenses.