TEMPE, Ariz. — Hector Nahle Jr. got out of the shower in his room at Hospital Zambrano Hellion in Monterrey, Mexico, around 5 a.m. on Nov. 30, 2020, and was almost ready. The then-12-year-old was an hour away from being wheeled into an operating room to have a tumor and 10 centimeters of his right fibula removed three months after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that’s prevalent in teenagers.
A psychologist had told Hector to bring something from home that could inspire him and comfort him.
He chose a red Arizona Cardinals Kyler Murray jersey.
Hector had been a fan of Murray’s ever since the quarterback was in college at Oklahoma. He’d study Murray’s highlights, watching an undersized quarterback -– just like himself — scramble and make plays.
Hector is expected to be in the stadium to meet Murray on Monday night when the Cardinals play the San Francisco 49ers at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Murray surprised his young fan with a Friday message on Instagram to say he’s flying him and his family to Mexico City and giving them tickets to the game. Murray will not play Monday because of a hamstring injury.
In Murray, Hector saw the football player he wanted to be growing up in Torreon, Mexico — about 600 miles north of Mexico City. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the 5-foot-4 Hector watched more Murray videos from his days at Allen (Texas) High School through his time with the Cardinals. The more Hector watched, the more he’d compare his game with Murray’s, and the more he’d learn.
Murray quickly became Hector’s favorite player. Murray also helped him through cancer.
A couple of days before the surgery, Hector’s mother, Luz Maria Herrera, told her only son to stay positive.
“I told my mom, ‘Mom, when you bring Kyler Murray to the room, we’ll talk,’” Hector remembered saying.
She couldn’t do that, but she brought up the idea of shooting a video, posting it to Instagram and tagging Murray. But Hector was hesitant. He had lost his hair from radiation treatment and his face was swollen. He didn’t look or feel like the same boy who had posted videos of himself hitting the corner on a QB scramble for his pee wee team.
But the morning of the surgery, he decided to do it. Hector put on his Murray jersey, sat in his hospital bed and looked into the camera.
“Hi, Kyler. I’m about to enter my surgery, and I hope we can meet one day because you’ll be my inspiration to recover and I’m your No. 1 fan,” Hector said.
The video was 12 seconds long. At 6 a.m., he was taken into surgery. His mother posted the video.
HECTOR’S PAIN STARTED in the spring of 2020. He noticed it when he’d run, a muscle ache in his right calf. To Hector’s parents, soreness wasn’t a surprise. Hector had a whirlwind year before the pandemic, playing a full season in the fall of 2019 and then going to Los Angeles to work one-on-one with quarterback coach Mike Evans in early 2020. This pain, his parents told him, was just a side effect of playing football.
Hector went for massages and therapy but nothing worked. In August 2020, his father, Hector Sr., suggested an X-ray to see if he had a broken bone.
Doctors suspected they saw a tumor. After a biopsy, the Nahle family received the news it dreaded: Hector Jr. had cancer.
At first, his mother was in disbelief.
“Why is this happening to us, because we are religious people and they told you that if you are good, good things are going to happen to you. And if you stay with that way, what did I do wrong to have this?” Herrera said. “So, instead of thinking about that, I was like, ‘I think God selected us for something because we are a family that has a purpose, but we have to find it.’”
The only thing Hector Jr. knew about cancer at the time was that his grandfather died from melanoma in 2005, a few years before he was born.
“At first, you think about cancer and you think about death and weakness,” Hector Jr. said. “Sometimes in the nights I thought I was gonna die. I was pretty scared.”
So was his father. The memories of watching his dad suffer from and eventually succumb to cancer came flooding back for Hector Sr.
The family disconnected from the rest of the world for a while. They weren’t as social and cut back on work. Herrera’s employees at her dance studio helped cover for her.
“It’s good to feel like you have the support of the people around you,” she said.
But their first doctor made a troubling suggestion: He said the family ought to find a psychologist who could prepare Hector Jr. for the worst. The family sought a second opinion during the first week of September in 2020 with a doctor in Monterrey, about a four-hour car ride from Torreon, who specialized in tumors and limb conservation as well as an oncologist whose specialty was osteosarcoma.
The message was quite different: Hector Jr. would be OK and so would his leg.
But even with the better news, another thought crept into Hector’s mind: He questioned whether he would ever play football again.
HECTOR’S TREATMENT PLAN called for chemotherapy, surgery and then more chemotherapy for nine months.
His treatments were in two-week cycles. His family would drive three hours to the hospital in Monterrey on Tuesday to get his bloodwork done and lungs checked out. Then he started five days of chemo on Wednesday. They’d drive back to Torreon on Mondays to start four days of recovery from chemo. If Hector wasn’t vomiting, he was nauseous and felt exhausted.
Through it all, Hector set a goal: He wanted to be cancer-free by the time he turned 13.
His father set up a video-gaming station upstairs so Hector would have a dedicated space to play. When he got home from the hospital the first time, he tried to run up the stairs. He made it three steps before he nearly fell from exhaustion.
Video games helped Hector pass the time and keep him connected to his friends. Hector played a lot of Madden NFL and was usually Murray and the Cardinals, before building himself in career mode — 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, just like Murray.
“I was very related to him,” Hector said. “He helped me a lot to go through that pain.”
For 10 chemo cycles, Hector and his family made the drives and he’d go through treatment and recovery. When Hector felt good, he’d go to school virtually. But a few days later, he would be back in the hospital for another treatment.
When Hector looked in the mirror after his hair fell out, the reality of what he was going through settled in.
“I thought, ‘That this is not me,’” Hector said. “That was a thing that I was like, ‘What the hell?’ because it was not the kid that I used to know. I was strong. I was an athletic guy and just all of a sudden I just changed. That’s pretty weird and sad.”
WHEN HECTOR WOKE up after surgery, he checked Instagram and saw the video he posted had some views: about 50,000, he recalled. But one thing was missing: a message from Murray.
With Murray sitting at 1.3 million followers, Hector and his mom knew it was unlikely Murray would see the video without some help. After some sleuthing, they found the Instagram account for Murray’s clothing brand and pieced together whom he follows, which led them to Murray’s manager, Avery Johnson Jr., who helped them.
On Dec. 10, 2020, Murray sent a 40-second video to Hector.
“First and foremost, I wanna say, you’re a warrior, bro. You inspire me as much just as I inspire you, man. You inspired all of us. I can’t wait to meet you,” Murray said in part.
He added that whenever Hector was fully recovered he wanted to fly him and his family to Murray’s native Dallas to throw some routes, get a meal and hang out. Murray also sent Hector an autographed game-worn jersey and some of his brand’s apparel.
Hector’s video had almost 86,000 views and almost 12,000 likes as of Nov. 2022.
Standing in a breezeway at the Cardinals’ practice facility in Tempe on Wednesday, Murray marveled at the power of social media: Hector was able to connect to his favorite player.
“I probably would’ve never been able to do that and get the attention of Michael Vick or somebody that I looked up to,” Murray said.
That made Hector’s message all the more special to Murray. He remembers what it was like to look up to a professional athlete, to want to meet him and be him. To be that person who Hector looks up to, wants to meet and wants to be like is part of his job.
And it’s amazing, Murray said.
“I don’t take any of it for granted,” he said. “Just try to be a great person on and off the field, lead by example and just be a leader, allow people to follow me …
“Being able to see the video, him reaching out to me, his family, doing anything that I can do. Obviously, anytime you can do that, that’s great.”
Hector has watched Murray’s video about 50 times, and getting the package from Murray was a boost to Hector’s spirits. He didn’t let anyone touch the jersey, going as far as sleeping with it.
“It’s in my room,” Hector said. “Nobody touches it. Only me.”
A smile crept across Murray’s face when he was reminded about Hector having the jersey in bed with him.
“It clearly means a lot to him, so anything I can do for him,” Murray said. “Once I get to meet him, finally, it’ll be a dream come true, not only for him but for me to be able to actually get to meet him and talk to him and meet his family.
“He still hits me up. He messages me. He says, ‘Don’t forget about me.’”
AFTER SURGERY, HECTOR’S mindset changed. He adopted a phrase from Eric Berry, the former NFL safety who played again after recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma: “Fear nothing and attack everything.”
“That helped me go through everything,” Hector said. “My mentality and my way to think was very different from the first four months to the next six months.”
He started throwing a football during chemo. He could only get it about 20 yards.
“My mechanics, my strength, power, my throwing power, everything was awful,” Hector said. “I didn’t like that because it was like this is not me.”
He completed his last chemo treatment on May 3, 2021, six days before he turned 13. Hector reached his goal. He was cancer-free by the time he was a teenager.
“I felt very proud, and that reminded me that he came to this world for a reason,” Herrera said. “I’m always telling him that as a young athlete, he has to be an inspiration for young people.”
Everything from then on was about football.
The first step was getting his body back to his normal. Chemo took its toll. He got back in the gym, ate a lot and started fine-tuning his throwing mechanics.
That took about nine months. His first game since 2019 was in April.
“I was not very confident,” said Hector, now 14. “I was very nervous because I forgot what it was like to play a football game, and I was very nervous, but after the first two contacts, I was back again.”
He led his team to an undefeated season, extending his undefeated streak to three years, capped by a 52-0 victory in the championship game, in which he threw for 230 yards.
It reaffirmed Hector’s desire to try to play football at the next level. His goal is a Division I scholarship — but to do that, he needs to play in the United States.
His plan is to move to Chicago with his aunt and uncle for his freshman year of high school and try to make the team from there. If everything works out, the rest of his family will eventually move up, as well.
He’s going all-in.
“Although he lacked the size, he had the heart and determination to be something special,” said Evans, his QB coach.
Hector impressed Evans with his footwork and quickness and his ability to throw on the run.
One player whom Hector reminded Evans of? Kyler Murray.
It’s been 18 months since Hector’s last chemotherapy treatment, and he feels like the kid from before his diagnosis, except better. And he’s approaching his football dreams in ways not seen among most 14-year-olds. He’s on a mission.
“I’m just a whole different kid, but for better,” he said. “Now I think different, obviously, because I’m now 14 and I used to be 12, but also because I feel sometimes the kids now my age, they just think about themselves and that’s not the case with me.
“Every kid, it’s just now they don’t have the same clear goals as I have, and I think that made me very, very strong. Now, every problem that goes into my life, I’m just like, yeah, I beat cancer. I can beat this.”