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Playing with a different kind of pain

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Alyssa Faller has always loved soccer. It's been a major part of her life since she was 5. It's what earned her a full scholarship to a Division I college — the only one granted to a PSAL Class B player.

But training? She has never been a big fan.

"I used to hate running," the Queens HS of Teaching senior said. "Now I can put on my iPod and run forever."

It's reality that's chasing Faller now. Her father is battling cancer.

She was supposed to be shut down for the rest of the season with an injury to her left leg. Why risk further damage when she'll be playing at Loyola College in Maryland next year?

But two weeks ago, her typical teenage world — getting ready for prom, graduation and the summer — was dealt a startling blow.

Alyssa's father, Joe, was diagnosed with brain cancer and given only six months or less to live.

After the initial shock, pain and tears, Alyssa made a decision. She needed soccer. And all that came with it.

Out came the cherry red uniform of the Queens HS of Teaching Tigers, the navy blue kit of her club team, the Albertson Fury. The shin guards were back as were the high, white socks that read "Fury" on the sides.

Alyssa, 18, wasn't healthy or fit, she wasn't cleared by her doctors. But getting out on the field was a better emotional remedy than any physician could have prescribed. It's there where she excels. With Albertson, she's a hard-nosed, physical defender and one of the team's leaders, according to coach Paul Riley. With the Queens HS of Teaching, she's one of the most prolific goal scorers in the city.

"I think as soon as I put on my cleats and walk out on the field," Alyssa said, "it's like two different worlds."

It's a better world than the real one right now. Joe Faller, a 43-year-old sanitation worker who lives with his family in Floral Park, starting having seizures six months ago. He went for tests in December that turned up nothing, according to his doctors.

But on May 19, Alyssa and her two brothers — Joe Jr., 15, and Anthony, 14 — found their father unconscious and were unable to wake him up. He was rushed to the hospital and a day later an MRI turned up a large tumor on his brain. Doctors removed 95 percent of it, but Joe Faller was still ruled terminal.

Alyssa became almost like another parent when her father was fighting the mystery illness, before the cancer diagnosis. She would drive her brothers to school and bring her dad to the doctor, even missing classes sometimes to do both.

She even went to the Queens HS of Teaching administration to try and get herself home-schooled so she can stay at the house and take care of Joe. Her father abruptly put a stop to that, wanting her to experience a true senior year.

"This kid has been such a leader from Day One," Joe Faller said. "All she's cared about is her brothers and seeing how I am. That makes me so proud as a father."

Alyssa gets her athleticism and love of sports from her dad, who was a baseball and football player in his day.

It was Joe Faller who coached her when she was just 7 years old with the Auburndale Soccer Club. It was Joe Faller who would warm up the Queens HS of Teaching goalkeepers before games — and he would never miss one of his daughter's games. Alyssa injured the area between her quad and hamstring muscle while training with her father.

"He's faster than I am," Alyssa said. "He's a better athlete than me."

And she's playing inspired soccer right now for her dad. She scored twice in the second half last Thursday as Queens HS of Teaching upset Clinton in the second round of the PSAL Class B girls' soccer quarterfinals. Alyssa scored again against Beach Channel Monday to lead the Tigers, seeded only 14th, to the semifinals.

On Thursday, the same day Joe Faller will meet with the board of directors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan to discuss possible experimental treatments, Alyssa and her teammates will play Goldstein with a chance to go to the city championship game on the line.

Queens HS coach Pat Kehoe had been resigned to the fact that Alyssa's high school soccer career was over. When she told him the day of the Tigers' first-round playoff game, May 27, that she was going to play, he was shocked. Especially knowing what she had going on at home.

"I wasn't even thinking about soccer," Kehoe said. "How can you even think about soccer?"

But that's just it. If Faller is thinking about soccer, she won't be thinking about possibly having only a few months left with her father. At first, she refused to visit Loyola in August, but Joe and his wife, Carina, have talked her into it. Joe marvels about how numerous schools, such as Duke, Georgetown, Binghamton and Boston University tried to woo his daughter.

Trying to find a school was like a veritable tour of the United States for the pair.

"It was some run for me to go with her — I'm just a guy with a high-school education, a sanitation guy," Joe said. "They really roll out the red carpet."

On Saturday, Joe Faller is headed back to Duke, where U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) had successful brain cancer surgery Monday afternoon. Right now, Joe is untreatable with common medical procedures, but Duke University Medical Center is one of the nation's leaders in neurosurgery.

"That could end up being the place that saves my life," he said. "We're trying to find the most state-of-the-art stuff right now."

Meanwhile, Alyssa is trying to continue on with her life. After the semifinals Thursday, she has a hairdresser appointment and the Queens HS of Teaching prom.

The cleats will go back on in August when she heads down to Loyola for pre-season workouts. She'll surely savor every moment, wanting, needing to stay on the pitch for as long as she can.

Strong as she is, when the laces unfurl and become loose, so does her grip on the world around her.

"And then you start to wind down, take off your shoes," Alyssa said, "and it's back to reality."

Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at mraimondi@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 6:38 pm, October 10, 2011
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