Sam Vasquez greets his family next to five picnic tables covered with pink tablecloths. There are pink balloons, pink ribbons and pink cake icing here, too, at 5-Town Park in Roscoe, with the rolling hills serving as a backdrop to this family's celebration for an unborn baby.
The 27-year-old welterweight fighter from Monessen has barely been a pro for a year, a career delayed by serving two tours in Iraq, and in that time, the left-handed fighter is 9-0 with five knockouts. He's currently promoting fights with his father Sam Vasquez Sr., or Big Sam, but now he has a contract offer from one of the biggest promoters in boxing, putting Vasquez Jr. on track to the biggest shows, better opportunities and life-changing money if he can keep winning.
On this sunny summer afternoon in the valley, Vasquez Jr. throws a surprise baby shower for his fiancee, Delrae Grutel, with so many questions floating over his future that just don't matter right now. The present is what's important, and his baby girl is due in about a month. Nearly 30 family members and friends bring presents at Vasquez Jr.'s request for the happy couple to spend a day without boxing on their minds. Or so they thought.
With a pink gift bag on his lap, Vasquez looks inside and shouts, "Oh, my God, Dad you gotta see this."
A fork in the road
When the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Sam Vasquez Jr. fights, Monessen comes with him. Groups bus out to his fights if they're in driving distance, arriving early, tailgating often and always sporting their "Team Vasquez" T-shirts.
His Pittsburgh-based trainer, Bob "Muscles" Healy, says Vasquez is one of the best fighters to come out of the area. That he has a chance to be something special. A champion.
It's discipline and strength built from his military years combined with quick hands and feet that make Vasquez a better fighter than the others he has faced in the ring.
"He hits harder than these [other] guys," Healy said. "The power and speed he's got is a lethal combination."
He has done so well that he caught the attention of Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, which offered him a contract after watching his seventh professional fight.
At the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, Vasquez fought Leandro Albornoz and his 16-2-1 record. Albornoz fell to the mat in the second round and wouldn't get back up.
The knockout was all Golden Boy needed to see.
But the decision isn't that simple for Vasquez and his father, who built "Team Vasquez" together. The offer could be Vasquez's ticket to stardom, or trap him in mediocrity, limiting his fights and taking control away from the family.
Big Sam, a licensed promoter, just doesn't know if he can, if he should, let go of his son's career just yet. He wants to be sure Golden Boy truly cares about his son.
At times, Big Sam has waited days for Golden Boy representatives to get back to him, a warning sign, he believes, that his son would just be another boxer.
"Everybody is questioning me," Vasquez Sr. said. " 'You've got to be with a big promoter. A couple years on a contract is easy.' When you're looking at your whole career, it's not easy."
Like he always has, Little Sam is relying on his father to lead him down the best path. The path to stardom, success and financial security.
The truth is, he doesn't know any different.
Vasquez Jr. would run home off the bus to tell his dad school didn't go so well. He would tell his father he was getting bullied. That the older kids would slap him in the head, or repeatedly make him change bus seats.
"I was younger and smaller and these kids are bigger," Vasquez Jr. said. "I was afraid to get in a fight and get beat up."
Vasquez's mother and father divorced when he was young, and his mother didn't have a part in his childhood.
He was small, but fast, with a load of energy and frustrations that needed to be freed.
In a way, boxing just made sense.
"When he was little, he was a terror," his grandfather Ken Heilman said. "He was ornery. Ornery as [heck]. Just full of boy. Then when [Big] Sam got him into boxing, he started to change.
"He had something to take all that energy out on."
"[Boxing] relieved so much tension and stress, it's like smoking a cigarette," Vasquez Jr. said. "Boxing is my cigarette."
While he began to excel in the amateur boxing scene, winning amateur Golden Gloves bouts, there were still those bullies from school. They never saw him fight.
One day, Vasquez fumed from the teasing.
His bullies followed him off the bus at his house, and once again, he found himself sprinting home. This time, he called his dad and asked for permission to fight. His father's response: "Go take care of your business."
It was the last time Vasquez worried about getting bullied.
Little Sam would stay out of trouble as he got older, focusing on his boxing aspirations steered by his father. And while he dreamed of one day becoming a welterweight champion, he also dreamed of getting a college degree. A much more expensive dream. A dream Big Sam couldn't afford for his son, so he suggested enlisting in the National Guard.
Vasquez served for nine years, four of which were spent in Iraq.
His first two years, he served with a "reaction force," a team whose job is to quickly respond to an attack on any other troops. In other words, his job was to help in combat.
"If people were getting shot at, if there's an assault, somebody gets blown up," Vasquez said. "We were on call. We had to be ready in less than three minutes."
"Your adrenaline is running so fast. It's like you're on crack."
He returned home in 2006 and had to pick up a job, once again putting boxing on hold. In 2008, a phone call would explain he was needed again in Iraq.
"I didn't want to leave my family," Vasquez said. "I had to go. I was obligated."
As night fell in Taji, Iraq, Vasquez Jr. thought he might never see sunlight again. He did what most children, most sons, would do. He called home.
The memory of that call is etched in his mind, an everlasting burn of his second tour in Iraq that ended with hearing Big Sam cry for the second time in his life.
"I just want to let you know, I'm going into something serious," Vasquez Jr. remembers saying. "I want you to know I love you. Tell my sisters I love them. Tell everybody I love them.
"I didn't ever want him to wait for the knock on the door."
Big Sam's stomach churned as the past few years of his life came into question. Had he put his son in this danger? What could he have done differently?
The message was one that couldn't be shared with his daughters. Big Sam kept the anguish inside, only to let it fester amid the unbearable pain of not knowing if his son was OK, if his son was alive.
"You're in awe," Vasquez Sr. said. "You start questioning yourself. I got my son in that situation. It's a lot of guilt."
The knock never came. Vasquez survived the night.
A simple suggestion from his trainer Healy led Vasquez to Texas to fight in the National Amateur Title fights. Vasquez hesitated -- he had just finished his second and final tour in Iraq.
A few months after Vasquez returning to Pittsburgh, Healy convinced him to go for fun, if nothing else. Healy told him not to worry about winning.
Sure enough, Vasquez won a bronze medal on the trip that would lead him to a top-flight training program.
A group from the Army World Class Athlete Program saw Vasquez fight and proposed that he try out for their team.
There was only one catch: Vasquez would have to re-enlist in the military, and if he didn't make the team, he would have to head back to Iraq. So Vasquez and his father talked it out. The next week, Big Sam got a call from his son saying he had re-enlisted.
"My heart dropped," Vasquez Sr. said.
Then he gave his son a final message of encouragement: "Sam, there's no holding back, you've got to go 100 percent."
And he did, winning his tryout and landing a spot on the elite team of boxers. He moved from Pennsylvania to Fort Collins, Colo., where he would train with the best.
Finally, after years of serving his country and fighting amateur fights in Pennsylvania, Vasquez surrounded himself with people who could help him realize his potential.
He also met his fiancee, Grutel, in the Colorado mountains. The two started out as friends, with Grutel occasionally showing Vasquez around the unfamiliar land. She had young daughters, who are now 3 and 4 years old, and Vasquez would help baby-sit even before the two began to date.
Soon, he would have a family of his own in Colorado, proposing to Grutel nearly two years after they began to date.
"Most guys run from that," Heilman said of his grandson's situation.
"He ran to it."
Little Sam threw the baby shower for his fiancee on his little sister's high school graduation weekend -- a weekend that was supposed to be spent with minds free of boxing. Until Little Sam and Grutel opened that present in the pink gift bag, and Big Sam came running over.
Vasquez Jr. lifts a quilt that will one day keep his daughter warm. A quilt that features four pictures of her father boxing, with a pair of gloves in the middle and the words "Team Vasquez."
Together, the father and son gawked at the blanket, snapshots of the life they built together.
Sam Vasquez Jr.'s baby girl will grow up with that quilt. He hopes she will come to know it as a keepsake of how her father's illustrious career began.
Mike Vernon: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @m_vernon.