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Chris Murphy, Published November 27 2013

Mahnomen player rises above life spent surrounded by drugs, death

Mahnomen, Minn. - At football practice a week before Mahnomen’s bid for a second straight Minnesota Class 1A high school state title, Anthony Sanchez looked down at his helmet. It not only protected his head, but it represented his heart. The helmet belonged to Preston Walz, Sanchez’s best friend, who died in April.

“The most dented helmet on the team,” Sanchez said with pride.

The things Sanchez remembers specifically about his life are like the dents on his helmet. They won’t go away, but he can’t remember exactly where they came from.

“I don’t even remember where it begins,” Sanchez said. “It’s hard to remember everything. There’s just so much.”

He doesn’t quite remember how old he was when his stepdad came home with a fresh stab wound in his thigh or when his uncle was shot in the back right next to him.

He thinks he may have been 8 years old when under the couch he found scales his stepdad used to measure the cocaine, meth and marijuana his stepdad sold. It was then that Sanchez realized those teenagers that came in and out of his Minneapolis housing project stuffed with 16 family members were being handed drugs and sent to a street corner.

He’s not sure what year in high school it was when his one best friend hanged himself and another died suddenly of heart complications.

Sanchez remembers one patient constantly pounding their head against the window for the two days he checked himself into Prairie St. John’s – a facility in Fargo for people with mental health issues.

Besides his current girlfriend, he can’t remember anyone saying they loved him. He’s never met his real father, and he just recently got a bed to call his own.

“He had to fight his way through his childhood because of where we lived,” Sanchez’s mother, Laurie Drift, said. “He felt like anyone he got close to died.”

Sanchez remembers being 12, watching “Cat in the Hat,” when the phone rang with information that his stepfather, Randy Wadena Jr. – the only father he had ever known – fell asleep at the wheel and died in a car accident.

It was in Mahnomen where everything seemingly began to turn around.

“Things were actually going well,” Sanchez said. “My mom and stepdad had jobs at the casino. I had friends die before in Minneapolis, but this was my first really close relative.”

Actually, “going well” to Sanchez meant not having strange men covered in blood pounding on his door at night or the police constantly searching his house or friends in gangs being stabbed. Until he was 12 years old, Sanchez lived in the Little Earth housing projects in Minneapolis, where all of the above was fair game on any given night.

It was a place where logic took a backseat to staying alive.

“He was a good man,” Sanchez said of his stepfather. “I knew he was in a gang and he sold drugs. That’s the only way we could make money. He had guns because people were after him. They tried to hide it from me, but I knew. I knew what they were doing.”

After his stepdad died, Sanchez lived with about 18 others in the Naytahwaush, Minn., home of his stepdad’s grandmother, which was already overflowing with animals.

Sanchez remembers the smell.

“I think she was a hoarder,” Sanchez said of his stepdad’s grandmother. “It was disgusting. There was dog feces everywhere. She had 11 dogs and four cats, and they were multiplying. I couldn’t take it.”

Sanchez’s mother got a job in Bemidji, Minn., after a few months, but Sanchez wanted to stay in Mahnomen because he liked the football team even if it meant searching for a home. He found a home with a friend, who later committed suicide, according to Sanchez.

“They took me in,” Sanchez said. “We used to hunt, go fishing with each other. He was my best friend.”

On Oct. 3, 2011, Sanchez was on his way to Detroit Lakes when his friend’s sister called.

“(She) called me crying, saying (he) killed himself,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t believe them. We turned in his driveway, and there were cops, and I started crying really hard when I got there.”

From there, Sanchez had his own thoughts of suicide. He checked himself into Prairie St. John’s.

“I had no friends, nowhere to go,” Sanchez said. “I wanted out. It was overwhelming. It was only two days, but it felt like forever. It was there I realized football was my way out.”

Sanchez returned to Mahnomen and befriended Walz. When he broke up with his girlfriend, Sanchez packed his bags, and Walz never hesitated to offer his home to Sanchez.

“He slept at my feet and I slept at his,” Sanchez said. “We both loved football. His family had problems, too, and we had goals. We wanted to get out of here and go to college. We didn’t want to be like everyone else because we knew where that leads.”

Sanchez got his grades up, sported a 3.94 grade point average the second semester of his freshman year and was working out with Walz constantly for football.

There was a calm coming over Sanchez’s life.

Walz then decided to move to Bagley, Minn., and Sanchez’s mother had gotten a house in Naytahwaush. Sanchez moved back in with her. The two friends still saw each other every week.

Sanchez remembers April 15, 2013, very well.

He went shopping with Walz at the Walmart in Bagley, even though Walz had been complaining of chest pains that day.

“He said, ‘Every time I get up, my chest hurts. I can feel my heart pumping,’ ” Sanchez said. “We didn’t think anything of it because we were healthy. I remember asking if he wanted to go to a doctor. He made an appointment for the next day.”

Sanchez dropped Walz off in Bagley after finishing shopping. Walz asked if he wanted to stay over, but Sanchez had school. That night, Walz began having seizures.

“His heart gave out,” Sanchez said. “I got a phone call the next morning around 7 a.m. I remember running up the stairs, I dropped to my knees in front of my mom’s door, and I told her what happened.”

Even his mother didn’t know what to say.

“He was so heartbroken,” Drift said. “He was really depressed and threatening suicide himself. I tried to be there for him, but I didn’t know what to say. As a child, I had never been through that.”

Sanchez wanted to drop out of school, but Mahnomen football coach John Clark Jr. talked to him.

“I remember that talk,” Sanchez said. “He told me to keep working.”

Last summer, Sanchez’s second home was the weight room where he bulked up to be an offensive and defensive lineman for the Mahnomen football team that has won 27 straight games.

“When our friend Preston died, we started talking about football and how we wanted to work really hard,” said Mahnomen sophomore Daniel Olson, who worked out every day over the summer with Sanchez. “Football helped him get through a lot.”

Last week, he found out his GPA for the quarter was 3.80, and he was on the ‘A’ honor roll.

“I thought we were going to lose him a couple times, but he seems to be on the right track,” Clark Jr. said. “He’s worked hard to get here. He’s had a lot of issues in his personal life where a lot of kids would have given up. He’s just happy to be where he’s at.”

Sanchez talks about death and drugs, as if they are expected. His lifetime of pain in 17 years is something no human being can become accustomed to.

“You never get used to it,” Sanchez said. “I don’t talk to anybody about it. I motivated myself to get away from it.”

The dents in Sanchez’s past will never go away. In the present, he’s creating ideas and goals that he’ll never forget.

“When I think about it, I don’t see it as much,” Sanchez said. “I can’t stop. I’m not impressed by myself or what I’ve been through. I want to get to college. That’s my goal.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548