Leo enjoys time as La Roche soccer captain

Photo Provided MARTINS FERRY kindergartner Leo Zambori poses with La Roche College soccer player Conner Hagins prior to a match last week at Bethany College. Zambori served as an honorary captain for the match because of a relationship he formed with Hagins during a hospital stay in Pittsburgh. Zambori is currently battling leukemia.

If you ask a lot of young kids who their favorite college sports team is you might hear things like Ohio State, West Virginia, Notre Dame, etc.

Leo Zambori, however, may have a slightly different answer. The Martins Ferry youngster, who is battling leukemia, might tell you La Roche College.

La Roche College?

Yes, the Division III school in Pittsburgh has definitely caught Zambori’s attention. But, maybe not as much as he’s caught the school’s attention.

During a match last week at Bethany, La Roche’s men’s soccer team recognized Zambori, who is a 5-year old kindergartner at Martins Ferry, as an honorary captain against the Bison.

And it came as a total surprise to Zambori and his family.

According to Natalie, her son met La Roche goal keeper Conner Hagins through a ‘Cuddles for Kids’ program when Leo was first admitted to Children’s Hospital last spring. Hagins actually founded the program, which is still ongoing at Children’s, when he was a young boy.

“Leo met Conner and his mom just two days after he had been diagnosed and it was really the first time he had acted normal since everything had happened,” Natalie recalled. “It was a rough few days for him.”

Leo was excited when he found out that Hagins played soccer, but his excitement went off the chart when he learned Hagins was a goalie because that’s the position he had played during his indoor soccer season last winter.

“Ever since then, Conner has kept in touch with Leo,” Natalie said. “He sent him care packages, took pictures with him and it’s just been an opportunity for a moment of normalcy.”

During a recent trip to Pittsburgh for treatment, Conner told Leo and his family of a game they had coming up at Bethany. Because of low count numbers, Natalie didn’t know if it would be a good idea to attend. She reached out to Bethany College about specifics pertaining to its field’s location. After hearing it was somewhat secluded, Natalie decided to take Leo.

“We got up there early, so we could stake claim to a spot and not have a lot of people around us,” Natalie said. “We sat under a tree and Leo wore a mask.”

As soon as the La Roche players — with Hagins leading the way — came on the field, they noticed Leo was in attendance. Hagins came over to Leo and presented him with the captain’s arm band for the game.

“It was awesome,” Natalie said. “Leo was so pumped up. He was showing it off, flexing his muscles. It was just a great moment.”

La Roche cleared it with the officials and Bethany that Leo could take part in warmups. On top of that, they wore special gold shirts in honor of Leo. The gold was because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. He also stood with the team during the National Anthem and flipped the coin.

“We didn’t expect any of that when we went up there,” Natalie said. “It was a very nice experience. He was allowed to bring the captain’s armband home and they gave him a new La Roche shirt.”

Leo’s day drew national attention when NCAA Soccer tweeted out a picture of him flipping the coin.

Though La Roche fell to the Bison, 3-1, Leo and the Zamboris didn’t care. They took more away from the game than any win or loss.

“The guys on the team seemed to be inspired and wanted to play hard for him,” Natalie said. “They didn’t win that day, but there are more important things than winning. It’s a really classy group of young men on that team. They really touched our hearts for sure.”

La Roche has invited the Zambori family to its game against Penn State-Behrend on Oct 22, which it plans on attending as long as all is well with Leo.

The efforts of Hagins and La Roche soccer are just another on the list that the Zambori Family wishes to express its gratitude toward.

“The support we’ve received has been amazing,” Natalie said. “God shows us how good people can be when bad things happen. We’ve heard from individuals and groups of people we don’t even know.”

Zambori’s battle with leukemia is marching on. He begins his next phase of treatment on Tuesday at Children’s Hospital.

“Leo’s doing really well,” Natalie said. “He’s handled the treatments well and he’s been good about everything.”

Natalie spoke at the Belmont County Commissioners meeting last Wednesday. For the Zambori’s, it’s all about raising awareness.

“Life is completely normal and you don’t think anything like this can ever happen,” Natalie said. “I went to school that morning, met my husband at the doctor’s office and then got a phone call that evening to take him to Children’s Hospital. Our lives changed from that point on. People need to realize this isn’t as rare as people want to think it is. It can happen to anyone.”

As he continues his fight, Zambori is on a home-bound instruction program through the Martins Ferry City Schools. The school district has also worked well with Natalie, who is a member of the faculty, in allowing her time off to be with Leo and for his appointments.

“Martins Ferry schools have been amazing,” Natalie said. “Not only with letting me be away, but with helping get Leo set up with the home-bound instruction.”

Natalie also pointed out that her husband, Chad’s, employer, Cumberland Trail Fire District, has been “super supportive, too.”

“They held a blood drive in Leo’s honor and more than 80 people donated,” Natalie said. “Fire fighters from all over the country have sent Leo patches. He actually got one from London, England.”

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