Journalism major and former Golden Gate Xpress sports editor Thomas De Alba stands for a graduation portrait in the Class of 2016. (Courtesy of Michael De Alba/ Golden Gate Xpress).
Family and friends are celebrating the life and mourning the loss of fearless former Xpress sports editor and SF State alumnus Thomas De Alba, who died April 30 at the age of 27 after a hard-fought battle with brain cancer.
“The first word that comes to mind when I think of Thomas is ‘heart,’” said Anne Belden, coordinator of the Santa Rosa Junior College journalism program, where De Alba was enrolled before attending SF State. “He had so much heart with everything that he did.”
De Alba fell in love with sports writing in his role as sports editor at SRJC’s student-run newspaper, The Oak Leaf. His passion for journalism
also prompted him to take on the role of co-editor-in-chief of The Oak Leaf in 2012.
“When he came to The Oak Leaf, he loved The Oak Leaf and he gave it his whole heart and he made it his mission to be the best sports reporter,” Belden said.
De Alba joined the Gator family after transferring from SRJC, and served as sports editor for Xpress in 2014, graduating from the journalism department in 2016.
De Alba was also a Bay Area sports fanatic, especially when it came to the San Francisco 49ers, and through an internship at SF Bay News, a site run by SF State journalism professor Jesse Garnier, De Alba combined his two loves: sports and journalism.
One of Garnier’s fondest memories of De Alba, whom he called a gifted sportswriter, came from his time covering the Oakland A’s.
De Alba got stuck in a rickety Oakland Coliseum elevator, which made him late to a postgame press conference with A’s manager Bob Melvin. The A’s had lost and De Alba arrived to find the press conference already in progress.
He waited for Melvin to finish speaking before interjecting.
“Thomas asked, ‘So what are you going to do to turn this around?’” Garnier remembered.
De Alba asked the perfect question, Garnier said, because it elicited a solid 15-second pause before Melvin answered.
“Putting somebody off-guard was one of his gifts and one of the things he was able to walk into any room and do,” Garnier said.
The next morning, the A’s media director gave Garnier an earful about his upstart reporter.
But Garnier said he defended his reporter and was proud of De Alba’s ability to ask uncomfortable questions.
“He did it for [SF Bay News], he did it for Xpress, and I’m sure wherever he is, he’s probably doing it now,” Garnier said. “It’s one of the charms of who he was as a person.”
Even as a child, his mother, Justine De Alba, said it was hard to not be swayed by De Alba’s perfect rebuttals. His sense of humor and quick wit were characteristics he carried with him throughout his life.
“Thomas was always loud,” De Alba’s mother said. “[He] always had a strong opinion about things. [He was] very competitive.”
She said he expressed his competitive spirit as a news editor, an accomplished Piner High School and SRJC tennis player, a martial arts black belt and a Super Smash Bros. tournament competitor.
In October 2017, De Alba had a grand mal seizure and doctors diagnosed him with a brain tumor. His mother said as a child, her son had many anxieties about death, and they finally seemed to make sense in the context of his diagnosis.
“When they discovered the mass, it’s like a switch went off in him and he looked us straight in the eye and he [was] like, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m going to fight this. I know it can kill me, but I’m OK with that and I’m going to fight,’” Justine De Alba said. “And he never turned back. He never let those childhood fears encroach … he was very brave.”
After surgery to remove the tumor, De Alba lost the use of the left side of his body and had to learn how to walk, talk and smile again.
Despite chemotherapy, doctors found a second tumor. His mother said he never stopped fighting.
“Even though he was going through all of this chemo, all of this radiation, he was still in the pool two times a week,” his mother said. “He was still at adaptive [physical education] classes three times a week. He was grinding every single day to get back his abilities.”
In the face of these new challenges, De Alba continued to host Super Smash Bros. competitions, pursued his third-degree black belt in the martial art Farang Mu Sul and was working toward a master’s degree at Sonoma State so he could one day help at-risk youth get into college.
Amelia Parreira, who was a sports reporter at The Oak Leaf under De Alba, said she was amazed at how positive he was and how he continued to put others first, even during his recovery.
“He would even ask to look at the work I’d been doing and continue to give me tips on my writing,” Parreira said. “He always made sure to look out for me and make sure I was always OK. He definitely became a big part of my life, not just as a writer but as one of my good friends.”
She said she admired the strong bond he had with his family, especially his younger brother Brandon De Alba. He was proud of his Mexican and Italian heritages and volunteered as an interpreter at the Red Cross in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires that consumed Sonoma
His parents said they will always remember him as “Little Papa,” even as they recall all he has accomplished in his vibrant 27 years.
“He was named after my grandfather,” Justine De Alba said. “Ever since Thomas was born, we called him ‘Our Little Papa’ and he’s just the apple of our eye.”
His strength and legacy will also live on through the poetry he wrote during his recovery process.
The following is an excerpt of a poem by Thomas De Alba titled “Thrive.”
“We thrive through the bad times because the good always seem to roll them over.
The days go by as I’m getting older.
Every morning is a chance to attack like yesterday, but bolder.
Every day is the best day of the week,
Not just a day I hope to survive,
Another day where we thrive.”