Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever
The Story of Erik Egan
by Jason Smith
“Pain is temporary, pride is forever.”
The code of Placer High School’s Hillmen. Its motto. It can be heard in any huddle, in any sport, on any field on which a Placer athlete is competing, embodying what a Placer Hillman is supposed to be. But what if the pain were perpetual, a constant reminder of the debilitating condition cerebral palsy, progressively crippling with time and age?
And what if pride was something that had to be sought out, gripped tightly once found, and in the end produced inspiration to the very young men from whom that pride was drawn?
If you look closely come this fall, there along the Placer High football sidelines, you can actually see it — you can watch it live.
Meet Erik Egan.
“He’s the soul of Placer football.” — Steve Montoya, Class of 2000.
Over the past two decades, there have been big changes along the Hillmen sideline. Head coaches have retired, at times by force.
Current head coach Joey Montoya was in 10th grade playing middle linebacker for the junior varsity squad when Egan was first called into then-head coach Jerry Van Lengen’s office.
“I didn’t have a ride one day and the next thing I knew Coach Van Lengen called me in and asked if I’d like to be a part of the team,” Egan said.
To feel a “part of” was something Egan had never felt. He was born two months premature in Covina, Ca. and placed immediately into neonatal intensive care, where he developed cerebral palsy, a condition caused by damage to the motor control centers of the developing brain.
Learning to walk was a task, but an achievable one that carried with it a noticeable limp. Egan attended physical therapy five days a week and was forced to endure multiple surgeries. Kids, as they often can be, were at times merciless.
“I used to come home crying sometimes,” Egan recalled, “asking my parents why kids were teasing me.”
Upon moving to Auburn, he found the kids to be more afraid than cruel. Not sure how to approach his disability, many took the safe route and simply stayed away.
“I never felt comfortable in my own skin,” Egan said. “I didn’t know where I belonged.”
In ninth grade, he began using crutches to relieve the pain caused by trying to walk upright, exacerbating the isolation he felt by being noticeably different than the rest of the students. Egan attended his first few varsity football games with his dad, but found himself drawn to something that extended well beyond the Xs and Os of a football game.
He envied the sense of belonging and camaraderie that he saw with the players. The players belonged to something bigger than a game; they were there for each other in a way that Egan had never experienced. He admired it. He wanted a part of it.
The gravity of being a part of something drew Egan to practices, where he caught the eye of the Placer coaches who eventually invited him to become a part of the varsity football team.
“They didn’t have to do that and they did,” Egan said. “I owe it all to them.”
“That first practice, I was really nervous. I didn’t know what to expect.”
As he climbed the stairs and walked onto the field, anxiety began to replace excitement. Exclusion by peers will do that. Teenagers can be harsh. Those fears, however, were put to rest from the outset.
“That class of ’95 will always be special to me,” Egan said. “They accepted me. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged to something.”
Led by current Placer defensive coordinator Eric Rodarte, the class of ’95 brought Egan into their family. Coming to every practice, he got to know the players and they got to know him.
He wore a jersey for home-game days and ties on away-game days, just like the rest of the team. He ate at team meals. He watched films with coaches during lunch.
“I remember giving him a ride home from practice and he knew more about the team we were going to play than any the players did,” said Clint Baier, Class of ’96.
He not only walked out with the team during rallies, he led them onto the floor.
“It changed my life,” Egan now admits.
Suddenly, coaches weren’t the only ones pacing up and down the sideline. Egan roamed between the 20s, shouting encouragement and reminding players of their assignments. On one particular play, an opposing running back took him out on the sideline. An immediate scuffle ensued, with a group of Hillmen using a few choice words to let the opposing player know which side of the sideline was his.
“They had my back,” Egan said. “They protected me and I’ll never forget that.”
Today, Egan can still be seen along the Hillmen sideline, but time, as happens, has realigned his priorities.
“When I was a student, I used to cry at night after losses,” he said. “I took it really hard. Now, I realize there’s much more to life.”
Coach Montoya has learned to utilize Egan over the years.
“He’s like a bridge between the coaching staff and the players,” Montoya said. “He’s the combination of a coach, a mentor and a friend. He means more to the team than I think people outside of the program realize.”
At practice he is just as likely to be giving advice on life as he is on a particular formation.
“The person the teachers and coaches try to raise young men to be — that’s Erik,” said Dan Matson, Class of ’95.
But as much as he looks forward to the fall, there is also the pain element. Football season is physically draining on Egan.
Climbing the stairs to the field and walking the sidelines is something that the doctors at Shriners Hospital told him would have to end. They said he’d need to succumb to a wheelchair by the age of 20.
“I refused to let my mind go there,” Egan said. “I wanted to prove them wrong. I still do.”
A wheelchair would relieve pain in his arms and legs, but would also mean permanent exile from the sideline, something Egan won’t consider.
“How can I tell the kids to give their all and push through the pain if I refuse to do the same thing?”
Pain is temporary.
“I do it for the kids and for the coaches who changed my life.”
Pride is forever.
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Top image by Salvador Bettencourt.