By RAYMOND PARTSCH III, Journal Sports
SUNSET — Valerie Marze has always been a fighter.
As a girl growing up in rural Sabine Parish, she had to fight to play youth sports and ultimately did so against boys who she routinely beat.
As a woman, she raised three children, took care of her household while her husband worked offshore and did so while working 12-hour shifts.
As a nurse, she would take on the emotional toil that comes with providing the needed care for her patients — whether that was for minor or major procedures.
That instinct to fight took over yet again two-plus years ago when at the age of 52, Marez was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Life is way too short,” Valerie said. “At that time, I just remember thinking that I had grand babies. That I had lots of life to live … That every day is precious. I know that sounds cliché, but that thought hits you right in the face when it happens to you.”
A SPORTS LOVING COUNTRY GIRL
Valerie Salter Marze grew up eight miles outside of Many, in the small community of Belmont. She adored sports and “played every sport they had to offer for girls” but when that wasn’t enough — she faced off against the boys.
In the early 1980s, there weren’t many fast pitch softball leagues north of Interstate 10. The only options for Valerie were to play in a church league and a slow-pitch travel ball team. Valerie, though, wanted more and decided to try out for baseball.
“There was no organized athletics for girls,” Valerie recalled. “When I was 10 years old, I tried out for the Dixie Youth baseball team and made the team.”
Not only did she make the team, as did her future college teammate — Ginger Craig — Valerie would become the team’s starting first baseman and an all-star.
Valerie would go on to attend Many High School (Class of 1985), where she lettered in basketball, softball and ran track. She was good enough of an athlete that she earned a softball scholarship from nearby Northwestern State University.
Valerie would go on to be a three-year letterman for the softball team at NSU, but she admits that she wasn’t the best player on the team.
“I wasn’t that great of a player,” said Valerie, who played outfield for the Demons. “I could run real fast and I could throw. I couldn’t hit my body weight.”
Valerie also played during an era when female sports didn’t have the facilities or resources as they do across the state today.
“We played on the men’s baseball field at the Natchitoches City Park,” Valerie said. “It was 300-feet plus in the outfield. We could hit in-the-park home runs but we weren’t hitting home runs out of the park.
“It was fun to be a girl, act like a girl, dress like a girl but play like a boy,” Valerie stated.
MARRIAGE, THE MINORS & MOTHERHOOD
While attending NSU, Valerie would meet her husband, Dickey Marze, who, like her, was a sports star from a small town — in his case Anacoco.
The two met while playing intramural basketball and taking a scuba class together. It wasn’t long after that the two began dating.
“We started playing co-ed basketball,” Dickey said. “I just thought she was fun to be around. She enjoyed the outdoors and was competitive.”
“While we were in college dating, she kept trying to find something to beat me at,” Dickey said. “So she found someone to teach her how to play racquetball so she could beat me. She practiced for weeks and we were playing. She hit the ball and then it was my turn to hit it back and it bounced off the wall and hit her in the back of the head.”
Valerie’s fierce competitive fire wasn’t only lit for herself, but for her loved ones. After earning first-team All-Southland Conference honors as a senior, Dickey was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 17th round of the 1989 MLB Amateur Draft.
Yet, it was Valerie who pushed her husband for them to put their degree pursuits on hold, so he could pursue his dream of making it to the big leagues.
“I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for her,” Dickey said. “I would have probably bagged groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. She made it possible for me to give it a shot.”
“Back then, one percent of every minor league player made it to the bigs,” Valerie said. “We had to take the chance.”
After playing rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League in Bradenton, Florida, the Marzes would relocate to Iowa to play for the Burlington Braves. The experience in the Midwest was a challenging one.
“I was homesick and it was so cold up there,” Valerie said. “We hunted Easter eggs in our apartment because it was so cold outside we couldn’t do it.”
After that season and with a newborn son, the Marzes decided that it was time to move back home.
The family settled in Shreveport and Dickey would return to NSU and earn his degree in education in 1991. He got a job offshore to support the family and also help pay for Valerie to get her nursing degree, which she did in 1993.
The Marzes family would build their dream home on 10 acres of property — the type where deer drank out of their pond — in Stonewall, while Dickey worked his way up in the offshore industry and Valerie served as a nurse at Willis-Knighton Hospital.
In 2000, the Marzes would move to Acadiana as Dickey received a promotion — one that would allow him to be home far more. Whether it was in Stonewall or in Lafayette, sports remained a vital part of the family’s lives, in particular their three children (Dayton, Hayden and MacKenzie).
The Marze children would grow up and all three would compete in collegiate athletics.
“Being a mom is the hardest job in the world,” Valerie said. “But it is the most honorable job you will ever have.”
‘A TON OF BRICKS’
Early in 2020, Valerie was still celebrating Hayden’s marriage and was preparing for a family ski trip in Colorado. She was working out more than normal to prepare for hitting the snow-covered slopes. That is when she felt something was wrong.
“My pecs were sore and my chest was sore from working out,” Valerie said. “Right underneath my collarbone I found this small knot and I thought to myself ‘what is that?’”
Valerie routinely had her yearly mammogram but had missed it the previous November. So she had a mammogram and an ultrasound. The doctors called her to say they found something “suspicious,” and she needed a biopsy.
Having worked as a nurse for three decades, Valerie still wasn’t alarmed. That soon changed.
“The radiologist told me, ‘If my findings don’t match my diagnosis then we will redo the biopsy,’” Valerie recalled. “I asked her, ‘What is your diagnosis?’ and she said, ‘I am 99 percent sure that it is breast cancer.’”
Valerie was stunned.
“You could have hit me with a ton of bricks,” Valerie said. “She (the radiologist) said it was very small and that we were catching it early but the only thing I could hear in my head was ‘99 percent sure it is breast cancer.’”
At the age of 52, Valerie was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Breast Cancer (Stage 1). She couldn’t believe it.
Valerie went to her husband’s office and broke down crying while telling him the news.
“It was almost like somebody passing away or death,” Dickey said. “It kicks you in the gut. You don’t know what to say but to say ‘we can get through it.’”
That is exactly what the Marzes did — but there were some unexpected road blocks. Valerie was diagnosed right as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country, which prompted many hospitals and centers to cancel surgeries. Valerie was forced to wait in limbo.
Luckily for Valerie, she was able to have a double mastectomy on March 20, 2020. For her, having both breasts removed gave her peace of mind.
“I didn’t want to worry for the rest of my life that it’s in the other breast,” said Valerie, who had reconstruction surgery as well. “That there is another lump. Worry about every time I get a mammogram. I did not want to worry.”
That doesn’t mean that dealing with breast cancer hasn’t been difficult. Like many women, Valerie deals with the guilt of being able to discover the disease early, not having to have chemotherapy or radiation treatments, and simply put — being alive.
“I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation,” Valerie said. “I didn’t lose my hair. I thought to myself why I was the lucky one? But then I felt guilty about saying that I had breast cancer.”
Valerie may have beaten her breast cancer but that hasn’t slowed her down, as she now has a successful second career as a mixed media painter. She has taken part in numerous art shows, selling her works in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Acadiana, and now having her art work licensed to sell through 318 Art Co. in Shreveport.
Valerie is also still fighting back against cancer, as she is using her experience to educate others.
“It is all about early detection,” she said. “You have to have your yearly mammogram. I can’t tell you how many times that I tell my story, and women will tell me that they haven’t had a mammogram in eight years or 10 years. I tell them that my story is a reminder that you need to have your mammogram.”
“That is one of her strongest points as a person,” Dickey said. “Now she is more about fighting to educate others. She wants to bring awareness to it. She is going to fight anything that comes at her. I mean anything.”
Contact Raymond at email@example.com