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Reversal of Fortune

Joey Arena wasn't even on the radar when Phoenix began the 2009 football season.

The senior lineman couldn't crack the fine print in the Pirates' newspaper team preview, let alone crack the starting lineup.

This would not have gone over well with his grandmother.

"As long as I can remember," says Arena, "she told me I could do anything I wanted if I applied myself. She was always disappointed when I didn't succeed in school. She wasn't big on judging people and wasn't really mad at me, but she always let me know I could do better."

If only Sherry Gallo, who died almost exactly one year ago, could see him now.

Actually, he believes she does.

"I'm definitely aware of that," he says. "I feel that."

Gallo, who lived with her husband, Nick, in San Jose, Calif., developed a form of vasculitis, which causes inflammation of blood vessels. She underwent four surgeries in six months before passing on as a result of a staph infection from the operations.

"She went through a lot," says Arena.

Her fight was difficult on the close-knit family, but it had a lot to do with Arena seeing the light.

He credits what has been a dramatic turnaround to her constant encouragement and his own realization that his high school days were wasting away.

Arena, who returned to Phoenix High this year after spending nearly two years at Eagle Point, was selected Skyline Conference defensive player of the year and, more importantly, has put forth a similar effort in the classroom. Failing or near-failing grades have climbed to B's and C's, and he's discovered a fondness for studying history.

"He's a huge success story in that way," says Phoenix coach Toby Walker. "Something switched on for the kid and he's been getting better ever since."

Grandma would have loved it. Arena lived in San Jose for a time. After the family moved here, he returned and spent entire summers with the Gallos. He and Sherry grew closer and closer even as her health declined.

"I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her," he says.

To this day, he and his two brothers each wear two rings that belonged to Gallo on chains around their necks. Joey takes his off only when he's playing football, giving them over to offensive coordinator Doug Elam, who keeps them around his neck during practices and games.

After games, when the team kneels in prayer, he says his "with Grandma" in his heart.

That'll be the case this weekend when Arena, with all his family cheering him on, plays a central role as Phoenix hosts Sweet Home in the Class 4A state quarterfinals. The contest is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Spiegelberg Stadium.

The Pirates, 7-2 overall, claimed the Skyline crown with a 4-0 record, then, after a first-round bye, posted its first playoff victory in four years, 14-8 over Junction City.

Sweet Home (9-3) is the runner-up out of the Val-Co League.

"It's been a good one," Arena says of the season to date.

Certainly better than most for him.

Arena spent much of his childhood in Phoenix but moved to White City to live with his mother, Janet, and little brother at the start of his sophomore year. He stayed through the winter of his junior year, then returned to Phoenix to live with his father, Joe.

Arena played football at Eagle Point but admits he didn't work hard.

At Phoenix and in his first meeting with Walker, the word clearly was out about the 5-foot-11, 235-pounder.

"(Walker) basically said I had a past of not really trying," says Arena. "He told me he'd give me a chance to play football if I wanted to play. I was tired of not applying myself as hard as I could. I just wanted to do better. I wanted to do something about it."

Arena was heartened that, as with his grandmother, Walker didn't judge him, didn't assume it would be a waste of the Pirates' time to issue the young man football gear.

"He let me prove myself," says Arena.

Arena found himself in a rotation at nose guard with Matt Lapat at season's start. Arena played little in the opener because he wasn't eligible until the day before the game, then got limited work the next couple games as he continued to improve his technique and learn the Pirates' schemes.

His first start came in Game 4 against North Bend, and Arena has since been entrenched.

Video evidence told Walker he had to keep Arena on the field.

"He's a fighter," says Walker, Phoenix's first-year coach. "He's not big compared to some of the guys he's gone against this year, but he uses his speed and he's fairly quick. He has the side-to-side lateral movement to negate any blocking schemes, and he's strong enough to take on a double team."

Arena was actually up to about 250 pounds through off-season weight training, but he burned off about 15 pounds when practice began.

Nevertheless, he makes the Pirate defense better in games and the offense better in practice, running the scout defense.

Arena says the toughest center he's gone against this year is Phoenix's own Brett Carder.

He also says any of his teammates could have been named the league's top defensive player — particularly back Justin Bohn or linebacker Chad Daniels — "and I wouldn't have been surprised."

But when, in a team meeting following the coaches' vote, Arena's name was announced, it was clear the award went to someone who would cherish it.

"I'm pretty sure I'll remember this for the rest of my life," he says. "It's a really good feeling to have gotten that."

And it's changed his mind about what he wants to do next. Entering military service and learning a trade has always been an option, but he's also considering attending a small college and playing football.

Wherever he goes, he'll have with him his grandma's rings and her steadfast belief in him.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com

Phoenix senior nose guard Joey Arena, an Eagle Point transfer, was named the Skyline Conference defensive player of the year. - Jamie Lusch