“I’m still a kid at heart,” says Cleveland High senior Taha Elfarisse, a kid who still loves to get up early every Saturday morning and watch cartoons.

He’s lucky he can get up at all, that he can still be a kid. Elfarisse was a passenger in a car that rolled an estimated 14 times in January of 2010 and killed a friend of his in the back seat.

Severely injured, Elfarisse underwent surgery four times after that tragic crash, which occurred after several carloads of teens and adults were returning from a fun evening of bowling at Starlight Lanes at Santa Ana Star Casino.

But, “playing chicken,” as Rio Rancho Police Dept. Capt. Rich Misbach remembered it, and not impaired driving, led to the rollover that claimed the life of another CHS freshman, Jordan Juarez, and the 19-year-old driver of the Ford Bronco, Thomas Brooks, that night. Juarez, Elfarisse said, was seated behind Brooks, who had earlier been telling Elfarisse about his job and going to college.

A preliminary RRPD investigation showed that the vehicle was southbound on Unser Boulevard when it began to roll several times. The vehicle came to rest on its wheels.

“I remember waking up and my adrenaline was pumping; I was really scared,” Elfarisse recalled. “Both bones were snapped in my right arm.”

Elfarisse and fellow teens Titan Weaver and Alex Jaramillo were transported to the hospital and later released.

But the subsequent surgeries, to his right arm and leg, “definitely put me behind in education,” and he gave heartfelt thanks to counselors, his parents and classmates for keeping him focused on what he had to do to graduate on time — and that involved taking classes at the Cyber Academy.

Elfarisse enumerated his time under the knife: The first surgery was to install two plates and 14 screws in his arm; the next involved a skin graft on his arm; the third was to repair tendons; the fourth was to repair nerves.

It kept him from running on the Storm track and field team, although he did serve then-coach Larry Chavez as the team manager. He was back on the track last spring, running with the junior varsity and is all set to begin his final semester with the varsity this spring as a sprinter. He says he loves sports, and is learning how to fly fish; a recent trip to the San Juan resulted in a good haul of fish.

Thanks to his commitment to persevere and continue his education, Elfarisse has been nominated by counselors and an assistant principal at CHS for the New Mexico School Board Association’s “Excellence for Student Achievement Award.”

To be sure, Elfarisse is a unique part of the Storm student body.

Born in Fez, Morocco, he was initially educated in Arabic and French and even today, when he returns to his Rio Rancho home, “It’s all Arabic.”

He basically learned English, he said, by watching people speak and says he was pretty good at it – his third language – by the time he was 7. Watching the cartoon show “Pokemon” helped a lot, he said, laughing at that memory, and of running home after school to watch it.

The Elfarisse family moved to New Mexico when he was still in elementary school: He attended Edmund Ross Elementary in Albuquerque, and then, once the family was living in Rio Rancho, Vista Grande Elementary, Mountain View Middle School, Rio Rancho Mid-High and CHS.

For arguably the only Storm from Morocco, Elfarisse said it was “amazing” to enter the hallways of Cleveland High. “I was blown away, how big it was and how it was exactly as I hoped it’d be (while still attending the Mid-High).”

Later this year, he said, he plans to enroll at the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University and begin studies that will eventually land him a career in engineering or medicine, with medical school at Colorado University — “I love Colorado,” he said — looming a few years down the road.

According to the letter of recommendation prepared for Elfarisse by Linda Menzel, Guadalupe Gallegos and Katherine Hicks-Lujan at CHS, his time spent recovering from the accident “compelled him to develop his character, personal strength and an appreciation of life itself.

“Taha has been an impressive role model for other students and an inspiration for educators,” the letter continued. “Although his path has changed due to the accident, Taha has not skipped a beat in finding his new path at school.”

That path includes a grade-point average of 3.027, being eligible for the Diploma of Distinction when he graduates in May, participation in the Sandoval County Youth leadership class, staying active in peer educator and mentorship activities and a load of local volunteer roles.

And, lest there be any debate, the trio of CHS staffers noted that Elfarisse “is a fighter and will not bow down to any obstacles.”

Of course, woe be to whomever keeps him from a good seat in front of the Saturday morning cartoons.

This “kid at heart” is a warrior.