The following article orginally appeared in the March print edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to help support the sport and have the magazine delivered right to your mailbox.

As the son of a U.S. Army major, Michael Alaniz of Lexington, Ky., has traveled all over the world — 25 countries and counting. But it was a surprise trip to Philadelphia in January that gave him the thrill of a lifetime.

Alaniz, a junior attackman at Tates Creek High School, was diagnosed in December with a spinal disorder that threatened to end his playing days. A specialist provided the diagnosis after Alaniz returned from lacrosse camp at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with excruciating pain.

“When he came home and I hugged him at the airport, he screamed,” said Patricia Alaniz, Michael’s mother.

X-rays showed not only that Michael had sustained multiple stress fractures in his back, but also that he had spondylolsthesis, a condition that affects the lower vertebrae. Growing 9 inches in one year and playing on three different teams had only added to the strain on his spine. He might never play lacrosse again, his doctor said.

Looking to lift his son’s spirits, Marcos Alaniz, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2015 after 23 years as a field artillery major, suggested he send a letter to his idol, Paul Rabil.

Rabil responded with an autographed Team USA poster and the note, “Get well soon, Michael.”

What none of them expected was the chance to say thank you in person.

On Christmas morning, the Alanizes surprised Michael and his younger brother, Alex, with tickets to the US Lacrosse Convention.

“I was super stoked,” Michael Alaniz said. “I’d been watching the buildup, all the people that were going to be there.”

Lexington isn’t a lacrosse hotbed. The Alaniz boys travel more than 75 miles each way to train in Louisville. There, they’ll meet families from as far away as Indiana looking for the same opportunity.

“People just desperate for places to play,” Marcos Alaniz said.

By comparison, a two-hour flight to Philadelphia seemed entirely reasonable.

Though Fan Fest did not start until Saturday, Jan. 12, the family arrived two days early. They found Lauren Rossi, manager of special events at US Lacrosse, who along with Rabil Companies chief of staff Andrew Manning arranged for a private meeting with No. 99 himself.

The conversation took a surprising turn when Manning introduced Michael’s parents to Rabil’s parents, Allan and Jean Anne. Their sons shared more than just a passion for lacrosse. They both also have learning disabilities.

Rabil grew up with auditory processing disorder, ADHD and word retrieval difficulty. In 2012, he started a foundation that provides sports programming and scholarships to children with learning differences.

Until now, Marcos Alaniz said, his son, who has a 3.7 GPA and wants to study aerospace engineering in college, has tried to hide his learning disabilities. Michael has ADHD, visual tracking and short-term memory problems. “It opened up another door I didn’t know existed,” Marcos Alaniz said.

It’s yet another reason to love LaxCon. Beyond the glitz of the expo hall and the allure of learning from the sport’s brightest minds, the event, despite significant growth over the years to include more than 7,000 attendees annually, has retained its romantic appeal.

“We were just expecting to buy some merchandise and let the boys see the exciting gear,” Marcos Alaniz said. “We could not have expected this.”

The Alaniz family plans to return to Philadelphia for the convention next year. Marcos, a former soccer player, has enrolled in the US Lacrosse Coach Development Program. Michael, meanwhile, was able to return to playing after three weeks of physical therapy. His official diagnosis was Grade 1 spondylolsthesis, the least severe and most manageable form of the spinal condition.

“Now we’re looking forward to [LaxCon] being something we do every year as a family trip together,” Marcos Alaniz said.