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‘Skippa’ Diaz battles cancer head-on

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Before his Farrington High football team played for the 1990 Oahu Interscholastic Association championship, coach Edward "Skippa" Diaz delivered straight-from-the-heart advice to his players on perseverance and tenacity, summing it up with one of his favorite lines, "bite down … and go hard."

These days, amid the rounds of chemotherapy to treat stage four esophageal cancer, Diaz said, "I tell myself what I used to tell my players, to just bite down and go hard."

Calling on the lessons learned as a prominent athlete and respected coach, the 66-year-old Diaz battles a cancer that was diagnosed just over a month ago. The condition has seen the weight on his fireplug-like frame drop to 214 pounds, but it has sapped none of the strength from his trademark vise-like handshake or from the force of his diesel personality.

Longtime friend and former Oregon State teammate Rockne Freitas said, "that is classic Skippa; he takes everything head-on."

Indeed, Diaz was an All-Interscholastic League of Honolulu standout at Farrington, where he graduated in 1962, and an All-Pac-10 defensive tackle at OSU, graduated in 1968. He also played professionally in the Canadian Football League.

He eventually returned to his alma mater and served for 21 years, 17 as head coach. He led the Governors to the playoffs 12 times, including nine seasons in a row (1990-98) and his strength, popping open locks with a closed hand, was legendary.

But his most productive results came as a role model and mentor to students, many of whom, like himself, grew up in public housing projects in Kalihi.

"He came up the hard road, is a role model and has been an example for people who thought life owed them something," Freitas said.

Diaz retired from teaching in 1999 and served as deputy director of the City and County Department of Parks and Recreation and on the Aloha Stadium Authority until he and his wife, Mary, a retired educator, went to Wisconsin for several years to be caregivers for her parents and a disabled brother.

Diaz said he had been working hard to lose weight, changing eating habits and working out regularly to slim down from a high of 340 pounds. He and Mary have been avid swimmers and paddleboarders. But Diaz said when he went for a checkup he was losing weight steadily and feeling fatigued.

After being diagnosed, Diaz said doctors ruled out surgery and he has had three of eight chemotherapy segments.

Diaz said he initially sought to keep news of his condition, "low key" but has since been overwhelmed by the "love I have received. I feel blessed to have an army of people looking out for me and praying," Diaz said. "Wonderful, caring doctors, family and friends, church (Trinity Lutheran of Wahiawa). Even (former) adversaries."

Diaz said, "I’m at a time in my life when I have to take on something I don’t know too much about." But, "like I used to tell my kids, I’ve got to bite down and go hard."

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