Local Heroes Showing Us What It Means to Have GUTS

In honor of the 2021 HEAT Playoffs presented by AT&T, we’ve launched yet another line of *fire* merch for fans to rock as they rep the defending Eastern Conference Champs. But one item stands alone in its uniquely authentic, crowd-sourced connection to HEAT Nation: Court Culture’s GUTS tee.

The term’s origin can be traced back to Pat Riley’s end-of-season press conference in 2014, during which the HEAT President uttered a phrase that has since become embedded within the die-hard HEAT fan’s lexicon: “This stuff is hard…and you gotta stay together—if you got the guts.”

And in the seven seasons since, “GUTS” has grown into the Twitterverse’s go-to term for the grit, toughness, and resolve that only comes from #HEATCulture—and its meaning extends far beyond basketball. So, we took it upon ourselves to find some amazing South Floridians who we felt best embodied what it means to have GUTS—those who have battled through life’s obstacles, shown undeniable strength, and committed themselves to selfless kindness along the way.

Laura Vargas

How have you shown your GUTS: By being a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting.

June 12, 2016 was life-changing for many. A night of dancing with friends turned into a night of running from bullets. I was with my best friend, enjoying what was supposed to be a regular Saturday night surrounded by people who were laughing, drinking and celebrating life. Last call for drinks came short of 2 a.m. when suddenly the music was drowned out by deafening popping sounds. People ran left and right, while I clung onto my best friend. I found myself struck by the first bullet as I collapsed face-first to the floor. Wiggling on the floor, I felt the shooter stand over me and realizing I was alive, shot me for a second time. This time, I held my breath and prayed he wouldn’t shoot a third time. Minutes went by while I begged God for a peaceful end and for my parents to not suffer from the news of my death. It was then that the Orlando Police stormed in and I felt something unfamiliar to me so far that night – hope. Little did I know that these would be my last moments with my best friend.

The nights that followed were some of the hardest I had ever endured. From being told the devastating news that my best friend had been killed that night to laying in a hospital bed feeling like my life was over. I couldn’t do anything for myself, let alone walk without any form of assistance. I was ready to drown myself in the darkness of my hospital room and was content in feeling sorry for myself. My self-pity was rudely disrupted by a small knock at the door. I angrily demanded to know who it was and was surprised to see four small paws under the hospital privacy curtain. My world was suddenly turned right-side up. I began to cry and shared with the therapist just how hard my days had been. How much I deeply missed my best friend and the immense guilt that consumed me. I got to enjoy a different furry companion every day I was hospitalized. Different breeds and sizes all offered me cuddles and tons of wet kisses. Little did I know that dog therapy would be the one thing that would save me and push me in the right direction throughout my healing.

Fast-tracking to nearly five years later, I finally see the light at the end of this long and treacherous tunnel. I have shed the misery and my old self is applauding how far I have come and how many hurdles I’ve jumped. I learned to walk again at the age of 27. Not many people my age can brag about this milestone since it is human nature to most. Yet, it’s something I’m extremely proud of. I have rekindled friendships that I thought I had lost years ago, while still being blessed with new friends along the way. People have shown me compassion and kindness through this journey, always willing to listen to my story and to understand how much of an impact the shooting at Pulse in Orlando affected the LGBTQ+ community around the world. I have learned humility and that nothing worthwhile comes easy. I’ve learned to not “sweat the small stuff” and to appreciate the things that bring me happiness, like spending time with my loved ones or cheering on the Miami HEAT with a cold beer in hand. Having incorporated dogs into my therapy really made me refocus my future. I went from becoming a doctoral student in Physical Therapy to becoming a successful local dog sitter and walker. I love what I do, and animals continue to help me heal. That’s my message to others – healing is a lifelong commitment. Don’t expect unrealistic advances. It takes hard work and GUTS. Some days are hard, but the great days are so valuable that it makes the bad days bearable. Life isn’t easy and it takes character, drive and hope to survive whatever is thrown at us. No matter how big or small.

Conrad Thomas

How have you shown your GUTS: By overcoming great adversity and getting my college degree.

Growing up in Overtown wasn’t the easiest venture. I was faced with violence, drugs and gang activity on the daily, all of which could have potentially affected my course of life a lot differently. Then, 2014 came around. It wasn’t one of my best years, socially or academically, and to top it all off, that same year I ended up losing my only supporting parent: my mother. Those troubling times, although hard, gave me a lot to think about and the type of life I ultimately wanted to experience when I got older. For almost the past seven years, I’ve been constantly molding myself into being a son I know my mother would be proud of. I graduated high school back in 2017 and recently graduated from FIU as of April 2021 with a degree in Communication Arts.

Lance & Linda

How have you shown your GUTS: By helping save my mother from a stroke.

I showed my GUTS by being brave enough to get help for my mom during an emergency. I called 911 and also reached out to a neighbor for assistance. I remain calm and keep my composure. I told my mom that everything will be okay, and God is with her and that I love her. I told her that her doctors will take care of her and she will be home soon.

During the stroke, I didn’t know what was going on. I later found out that I had a stroke while in the hospital the next day. Doctors told me it was a result of me having COVID-19, and I was in the hospital for one week and in the ICU for three days. I am so thankful to my son, Lance. He is my angel and my everything. If it was not for God and my son, I would not be here. I am so proud of him because he was brave enough to do a big thing in a scary situation, one where most adults may have just frozen. He reacted, remained calm and helped me stay calm as well. He went out and did an exceptional job by making sure he got aid to me on time. The doctors said that with this, “time is everything,” and my son made sure everything was done quickly. I’m so grateful to my little 10-year-old for having the wisdom, the GUTS and just being able to do such a big thing at such a young age. I’m so happy for my little angel and all that he has done for me.

Anthony Barroso

How have you shown your GUTS: By painting over an anti-Semitic mark on my way to work.

On February 23rd, 2021, I was driving to work when I noticed anti-Semitic graffiti on a fence near my home in the Sunset area of Miami-Dade. As I was sitting at work soon after that, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. I knew that strangers driving down the street with their children would have to see that for the rest of the day. I thought of all the amazing Jewish people I admire in my own life that would hate to see that message in front of them. I just couldn’t let that happen. During my lunch break, I bought a gallon of paint and a brush from my local hardware store and painted over the graffiti. It was the right thing to do.

Everyone wants to do the right thing when the moment calls for it. But how many of us are willing to answer that call? Doing the right thing, spreading kindness, and blocking the hate for others. That’s what takes GUTS.

Sue Sweetman

How have you shown your GUTS: By being a firefighter of 21 years and donating my kidney to someone in need.

Inspired by my twin sister’s courageous path over two decades ago, I too joined the fire department 21 years ago, not knowing at that time what an incredible experience and privilege it would be to be part of such a humbling and exciting career. In the first few years after joining Deerfield Beach Fire Rescue, I had the honor of being part of an amazing group of fellow firefighters who competed in the World Firefighter Combat Challenge which tested physical strength, stamina and focused on a series of events that mimicked what could be expected on an actual fire ground. From hoisting hose rolls up five stories and pulling charged hose lines to a target to dragging 180 lb. mannequins 100 feet, our women’s team took top three in the world for several years running.

Although not a personal goal in itself, several years later I had the distinction of becoming Deerfield Beach’s first female fire Captain, giving credit to the men and women who came before me who made that possible and were such an integral part of my career and personal development. The same mental and physical toughness I was able to learn through being a firefighter allowed me to also complete four marathons and an ultra-marathon—a 50-mile-race in the Florida Keys in the heat of the summer.

Finally, once again, inspired by my twin sister and fueled by my faith in God and the unwavering support from my family, I had the opportunity to donate one of my kidneys to a man who was in desperate need of a lifesaving operation. Although I was the donor, I feel as if I received far more than the recipient. The outpouring of love and support from my family and friends to both me and the recipient was a testament to the kindness and authenticity of the people I’ve had the honor to share this life with.

Patricia Yelpo (Patricia also works on our Strategy & Data Analytics team at the HEAT!)

How have you shown your GUTS: By battling cancer for a second time.

This is my second time fighting cancer. In 2015, I had surgery and radiation. Five years later, in 2020, I had some convulsions. The diagnoses were that I had Metastatic Breast Cancer in my brain (26 lesions) and body (liver, kidneys, lungs, bones). After that diagnosis, I went through entire brain radiation and chemo. I really have tried to stay positive during radiation sessions by always thinking about a white light (a healing light) coming from outside my head. It was the radiation light, but I always transform it into positive energy. While receiving the chemo, I am always appreciating the medicine. Everything I’ve done and continue to do is so worth living. You feel so strong, appreciate the journey you are on and celebrate you and your body for getting through, for fighting and not giving up. Metastatic breast cancer has rocked my world. I will beat this battle with a positive attitude and mind, by doing daily mantras, and most importantly, by loving myself. I am a fighter and nothing will stop me. My family is an amazing support system and they give me the GUTS to keep moving no matter what. REMEMBER, BE STRONG, NEVER GIVE UP AND ALWAYS SMILE!


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