You always knew when he had something to hide or when you were moments away from the reveal of his latest practical joke. You knew because the devilish grin would start to creep across his face when you were about to discover his empty pistachio shells strewn about your perfectly clean living room or he locked into a prime target for a wet willy. He simply couldn’t help himself but smirk. Unfortunately, in the early 2010s, being unable to help himself became all too real. Manga was diagnosed in 2011, and in the summer of 2014, we lost that sweet smile to ALS.
Marco Paulo Santos, “Manga,” was a proud Brazilian, a stud water polo player, a role-model citizen, a loyal teammate, and a loving family member. Most incoming college freshmen don’t play in games during their first season of water polo in order to bulk up and prepare for NCAA level play. This is known as a redshirt year, yet Manga was named to the varsity team immediately. While his speed in the pool could be described as “adequate,” he was absolutely strong and smart enough to compete with guys who already had three years of experience. After winning an NCAA championship that freshman year in 2004, Manga was a team leader until he graduated and went on to play professionally overseas. While abroad, he noticed that his body wasn’t functioning like it should and cut his career short, opting to finish business school instead.
Despite his water polo success, Manga’s strongest traits shone brightest out of the water. He was passionate about helping others. He was always upbeat and positive (except when we’d learn some select four-letter words in Portuguese after a missed shot in the pool)! Manga and I spent a lot of time at the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center together. He was a constant donor, frequently maximizing the 24 annual platelet donation limit. While his teammates were enjoying an afternoon beer or two, Manga was spending those hours with needles in both arms donating life-saving platelets, plasma, and blood to kids suffering from cancer. I imagine the free movie passes for donations played only a small part in his decision to give platelets as often as he did. He and I saw one of the Saw franchise horror movies in theaters, and upon seeing that it was just the two of us in the huge cinema, I think I was more terrified of a signature Manga prank than anything Jigsaw was doing on the big screen.
The last time a lot of us saw him was in May of 2013 during a long weekend in Southern Florida. Several of his college teammates joined forces with his high school teammates and coach to scrimmage and practice a few times. Manga was beaming the entire weekend, seeing his old and new friends come together to compete and enjoy the sport he loved. Around this time he stopped walking, lost most use of his hands, and needed help getting dressed. Krsto, our teammate and Manga’s closest friend, was helping Manga ready himself for the day. After getting his shorts on, Krsto knelt down to tie Manga’s shoe. In a defining statement of his character, Manga told Krsto, “One day when you get sick, I’ll be the one to take care of you”.
The phone call I received on the day I found out about Manga’s ALS diagnosis was one of the most heart-wrenching of my life. After watching him battle for three years and lose that fight, I knew my life would be changed forever. I have seen first hand what this disease can do to a person and the challenges it brings to their loved ones. I want to participate in the fight for a cure. I wear an ALS wristband each day not only to help spread awareness of the disease but also to serve as a reminder to myself to live #MangaStrong. I want and need to do more to fight for those who have received these near-certain death sentences. That’s why I support organizations like Augie’s Quest. Manga would, and that’s all I need to know.