Head in the Game

Brain surgery forced New Jersey native Anthony Vargas to give up one of the two sports he loves and confront his own mortality at a young age. Now a second-year student at Oxford College, he remains determined to use those life-altering experiences and his innovative drive to benefit others.

by Gabriel Stovall

Anthony Vargas will be the first to acknowledge that he has had plenty of opportunities to feel sorry for himself, fold up his proverbial tent and quit. He just chooses not to do so. Now, the second-year Oxford College student uses one of the very issues that could have fed a desire to throw in the towel to instead bring hope and help to others. It serves as the impetus behind Vargas’ start-up company: Safe Squeeze Head Gear. 

“I want to create solutions for people recovering from brain injury [and] for athletes who want to stay on the forefront of preventing concussions and brain injuries,” he said. “I want to make opportunities that keep people from worrying about finding quality head gear when they need it.” 

Back in 2018, Vargas needed it. That was when the Paterson, New Jersey, native realized he would have to undergo surgery to remove a mass from his brain. It started innocently enough with a few pesky headaches, but over the course of eight years, they turned into excruciating migraines. 

“Some days, it would be so painful I’d be screaming through my pillow in bed,” Vargas said. “It all culminated with seizures and me losing control of my left hand. I went to my pediatrician, and they looked at me, did some tests and realized something was really off with me.” 

“Ever since those three days in the hospital, I just learned how to live life with more gratitude in everything.”

Anthony Vargas

Two MRIs showed an arachnoid cyst the size of a small lemon resting on the motor cortex of his brain. “That’s the part that affects movement,” Vargas said, “which is ironic because of the fact that I was an athlete.” He grew up playing football and basketball, and his skills on the basketball court were impressive enough that Pioneer Academy, a school in nearby Wayne, New Jersey, recruited him to help start its program. “That was my sophomore year of high school,” Vargas said. After high school, Vargas arrived at Oxford College to major in psychology, with a minor in media production, as part of the physician’s assistant track. He has also been able to extend his athletic career, averaging 9.4 points and five rebounds per game as a guard for the Oxford men’s basketball team. More than the action on the court, however, Vargas takes pride in being able to use athletics to be a more meaningful part of the Newton County community at large. 

“Being an athlete at Oxford, specifically compared to high school and AAU ball, it’s so much more involved off the court,” Vargas said. “It really requires an aspect of leadership that translates to community. Here at college, you’re less of an athlete and more of a community member.” 

As satisfying as the duality of his role as a student-athlete has become, Vargas remembers a time, not too long ago, when it all felt like it might never happen. Vargas describes the time of his brain surgery as the most stressful and scary season of his life, as well as the most beneficial. 

“Being 12, turning 13, that’s just such a young age for something so visceral to happen for me,” he said. “After the surgery, I was in the hospital for three days. I got a lot older through those three days in the hospital. I began thinking through things that are bigger than athletics, even at that age. It prepared me for the other things that I’ve been able to do.” 

Piloting Safe Squeeze Head Gear stands at the forefront of his efforts. It was born out of what he and his family dealt with trying to find the right kind of head protection that could keep him involved in at least one of the sports he loved. 

“I wasn’t able to play football anymore after that, but I was still able to play basketball,” he said. “Our family did a lot of research to find a way to get me something that could get me back on the court. We settled with a rugby helmet, and it was good, but I think it could’ve been better.” 

Previous slide
Next slide

Vargas admits the uncertainty of how his career would continue and the concerns of any later aftereffects from surgery took a toll on his psyche. He has undergone several other medical procedures over the years, including hip surgeries. While they contributed to Vargas’ frustrations, faith and family kept him steadfast. 

“I realized how much it really does take a village,” Vargas said. “I had my parents and four siblings, as well. During the morning of my surgery, I had my whole family around me, and people who couldn’t be with me were on FaceTime wishing me well. Family’s definitely been a driving force for me.” 

So, too, has his relationship with God. Vargas concedes that even with his family and friends being constantly by his side, his spirituality made all the difference. “I think it all comes from my faith in Jesus,” he said. “In fact, I know it does.” Vargas teaches Bible studies on Oxford’s campus, and he credits the difficulties he has overcome as catalysts for helping him discover how to learn and live God’s love. “I put a form of love—God’s agape, selfless, limitless love—in my Bible studies at Oxford,” he said. “I think my family showing me that kind of love, as well as me defining that for myself and knowing it comes from my Creator, it all helps me do all the things I’m doing.” Between basketball, his studies in the classroom, starting a business and trying to find his way into the real estate sector in metro Atlanta, Vargas stays busy. While chatting about his experiences, he was balancing the business pitch, a chemistry midterm and a Thursday afternoon flight back to his native New Jersey. 

While some have expressed concern about his doing too much, Vargas points to the life lessons brain surgery taught him. 

“Ever since those three days in the hospital, I just learned how to live life with more gratitude in everything,” he said. “I looked at people differently. I played the sport I was still able to play differently. I recognized how precious it was to be on the court. I remember when I got out of the hospital and went outside, it was like I heard the birds differently; the sun on my skin felt different; the air was different. I realized how much I needed to enjoy and make the most out of life.” 

Vargas knows life will throw more difficulties at him, but he believes his newfound perspective can keep him content and grateful while also allowing him to make a lasting impact on others. 

“I’m busy, busy, busy, but I love everything I do here,” he said, “and as I continue to do what I love, I’m always meeting other people who see that light in me. For me, that’s what gives me the joy to get through the hard stuff.” 

Click here to read more stories by Gabriel Stovall. 

Related Stories

Take Nothing For Granted
An Unbreakable Will
Warrior Spirit
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *