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School rallies for fallen runner
As stroke victim Alberto Diaz recovers, classmates chip in to help family
South Hall Middle School eighth-grader Alberto Diaz was competing at a cross country event Sept. 14 at West Hall Middle School when he suffered a massive stroke. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Alberto Diaz is lying in a hospital bed at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, but the eighth-grade stroke victim’s spirit is bounding through the halls of South Hall Middle School, perhaps more than ever.

Dozens of students at South Hall Middle sport "For Alberto" T-shirts as they mingle in-between classes. Kids and teachers alike rock Diaz’s soccer number, No. 17, on the back of the T-shirts students are selling to help his family while they are at his side in the hospital.

Last month, Diaz, 14, was competing in a cross country race at West Hall Middle School when he collapsed and suffered a massive stroke. A school nurse was on hand to stabilize him before he was sent to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, and then to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Linda Grizzle coaches South Hall Middle’s boys cross country team, and she said she was surprised the team’s lead runner and standout soccer player had a stroke.

"He was leading the race, and they were about a mile in, and he just collapsed," she said.

Several weeks later, Diaz remains in the hospital and has trouble speaking and moving the right side of his body. He started speech and physical therapy Monday and is making more progress than doctors expected, she said.

"He’s going to be in therapy for a while. He’s such a fighter, though," Grizzle said.

Students from South Hall Middle and several other Hall County middle and high schools have raised more than $5,000 for Diaz’s family, which includes four daughters. High school students have been collecting donations at Friday night football games.

Students and community members have donated money to the Alberto Care Fund established at Lanier Credit Union, as well as gas cards and food.

Diaz’s Alpharetta Ambush club soccer team also has bought T-shirts and collected donations for their fallen teammate.

Susan Carlson, a guidance counselor at South Hall Middle, has helped to oversee the $10 T-shirt sales benefitting the Diaz family. She said students’ support has been contagious and has not waned.

"It’s interesting because it started out with his friends, and then grew to our school, then grew to the district, then grew to the community," she said. "There’s hardly a day that goes by where somebody doesn’t stop in with a creative way to help the family."

Diaz’s friends say they just want him and his fancy "faux hawk" hairdo back at school with them.

"He always has so much energy and is so happy," South Hall Middle eighth-grader Carly Herrington said. "He gets voted best hair in the yearbook; they call him ‘Shark Fin.’"

Israel Avila is an eighth-grader at South Hall Middle and played with Diaz on the school soccer team. He said his friend is sorely missed.

"He was just so nice to everybody, very friendly," Avila said.

Avila, 14, recently ran the Hall County cross country championship in honor of Diaz. He wore Diaz’s soccer jersey during the race and crossed the finish line 20 seconds before anyone else. He then brought the gold medal to Diaz in the hospital.

Jedd Carter, a close friend of the Diaz family, said despite doctors’ grave outlooks, Alberto is making slow progress.

"Alberto was awake and responding to family members and friends who were with him on Sunday and appeared to be able to read and comprehend his surroundings. There’s certainly been no diagnosis that he will never speak again," he said. "... The family would like to thank everyone who has supported Alberto."