After a near-fatal accident, Arnaldo Salazar has rededicated himself to academics and soccer.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat


Soaring for headers or banging into opponents, Arnaldo Salazar plays soccer with no fear despite doctors’ warnings to drop his passion.

What the Santa Rosa Junior College standout does dread is going out on his birthday.

“I can’t forget that day. It brings up a lot of stuff,” Salazar said. “Now every birthday I stay home.”

Two years ago, four friends were headed to a burger joint early on the October morning after Salazar turned 20. A loud motorcycle startled the driver and the car went off Highway 101, slamming into a guardrail and tree in south Santa Rosa. Salazar somehow survived. Another passenger, Sonoma State sophomore Maribel Raya, did not.

Salazar mourns for Raya’s family. The emotional and physical pain can leave him in tears.

What gives Salazar strength is a greater appreciation for school and his sport.

That he was again a playmaker in one of California’s most successful junior college programs amazes coaches and players. Knowing how physical the game is, they marveled at Salazar’s desire to compete again this season after a long and humbling recovery.

“For him to be playing again is inspiring,” said teammate Spencer Selak. “We go through him. He’s the go-to guy. He’s the playmaker.”

Santa Rosa coach Marty Kinahan said Salazar is clearly a tough kid who values the game more and is playing better than ever.

“To come back from what he suffered is remarkable. A lot of people would have hung it up,” Kinahan said. “I think he enjoyed the game more this year. His love for soccer has been great to see.”

More important for Salazar than playing at a highly competitive level again is finally appreciating the value of an education. After bouncing among four high schools and turning around poor grades in junior college, Salazar aims to graduate. Having gained an admiration for the healing hands of therapists, Salazar wants to study occupational therapy at a four-year university.

“Over time he’s grown to appreciate the value of his education and it’s great to see him in college. He’s persevered and shown a lot of strength,” said Chris Ziemer, Sonoma Academy athletic director and longtime Santa Rosa United club soccer coach.

Experiencing what he described as failures throughout much of school and in an attempt to play professional soccer, Salazar has pushed to come back from that traumatic fall day in 2009.

“Now was the time to think about what you really want to do with your life,” Salazar recalled.

Feeling fortunate to be alive, Salazar opened his eyes to the world again in Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit. That was two days after the accident.

“I didn’t remember anything. The next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital,” Salazar said.

Salazar would remain at the hospital for another week.

His injuries: A broken left arm that required a metal plate and six screws and still bears a large scar; two fractures in the right hand that has a lump to this day; two broken neck bones; a pair of fused vertebrae.

What followed was six months of learning how to live again. He wouldn’t play soccer again for nearly a year.

Three days a week Salazar went through therapy for the neck injuries. Three days a week he endured occupational therapy to regain use of his damaged arm and hand.

“It was difficult. I didn’t start crying until two months after the accident. Then it hit me,” Salazar recalled.

Family was there to help Salazar as he overcame difficulty eating, bathing and getting around the house. Coming off medications made sleeping difficult.

Coaches and friends brought food and sent money.

“Friends and family pretty much kept me going, especially the little ones,” he said.

Talking soccer with young cousins who share Salazar’s love for the game also gave him inspiration for returning to the field.

Returning to school while still going through therapy in spring 2010 proved difficult. Salazar was finally able to attend school full time last fall.

“I was struggling. I started failing classes,” he said. “Now my grades are slowly getting back up there.”

Last school year also marked Salazar’s return to playing soccer, though far from his former level. He grabbed an opportunity to assist Ziemer with the Sonoma Academy boys’ varsity and both Salazar and his young charges improved as a result. The Coyotes reached the small school section championship game.

“He brought passion and enthusiasm to our team,” Ziemer said. “You could tell he was feeling his way around. But quickly his footwork and his dribbling was amazing. He did a great job coaching for us, but he’s too young to not be playing.”

Play he did this year. Salazar joined a coed team, two Sunday leagues and a pair of indoor teams.

Cracking the Santa Rosa Junior College starting lineup was the next challenge. Salazar did just that, with speed to separate from defenders, deft passing and sharp shots when needed.

“He trains harder than he ever has,” Kinahan said. “He was good before. He’s a little faster now.”

Wearing the home blues of the Bear Cubs men’s squad again this season marked a milestone in Salazar’s return to the game. His first year with Santa Rosa renewed Salazar’s dedication to soccer. Salazar also applied himself in school as never before.

“Marty disciplines you a lot,” Salazar said. “He tells you to be on your classes, your homework and soccer. Or you don’t play.”

Soccer was all Salazar admittedly cared for as a talented teen-ager. His grades were poor enough that he only played one year in high school, as a sophomore at Piner.

“School wasn’t for me at the time. That was just me growing up,” Salazar said. “In high school I was young and dumb. I ditched a lot. That was a mistake.”

Salazar attended Montgomery as a freshman, Ridgeway as a junior, and returned to Piner as a senior.

Playing for top Santa Rosa United club teams throughout the years helped Salazar hone his skills and speed. He was good enough to join the Sonoma County Sol, a semi-professional team.

“He was playing at the highest level for his age group in the United States,” Ziemer said.

A move to Southern California at 18 helped Salazar finish school and provided a wake-up call for his dream of playing professional soccer.

Living with an uncle in Norwalk, he graduated from El Camino High. During those months Salazar worked out with the Chivas USA youth development program, a training ground for Major League Soccer. He also made sandwiches at a local Subway restaurant.

“I just wanted to actually make it as a pro,” Salazar said. “I thought I was in my prime.”

Early in 2008 he was cut from the program — the dream deferred.

“It was hard. It gave me motivation,” he said. “That’s when I decided school was most important. After four years, I can try it again.”

Back in Santa Rosa at the junior college, Salazar quickly found his footing on a team where he was a scorer and gifted team player. The Bear Cubs lost in the 2008 state championship game.

Injuries dogged Salazar that season. But the team’s physical therapists kept him in the lineup.

“I was in the training room every other day,” Salazar said. “I had to keep playing.”

Back at the top of his game and with improved grades as well, Salazar hopes a four-year university will give him a chance to continue playing.

“I play in some pain, but I’m playing,” Salazar said. “I love the sport too much.”