Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday's Word: Jack

It's been a bye week when I've been thinking a lot about Jack.

And that's thanks to the latest member of the Lehigh football team, second grader Jack Knudson.

Jack is an incredibly inspirational kid from nearly Salisbury Township who hasn't let anything keep him down, or kept him from pursuing his dreams.

And a few weeks ago, members of the Lehigh football team added Jack as their newest member.

Stories don't get much better than this.

Jack, according to Keith Groller of the Morning Call (note: subscription may be required), has already gone more challenges than many people face in their lifetimes.
Jack was just 4 1/2 years old when he was rushed to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia via helicopter with a tumor in his brain. 
Due to the location of the tumor, it was considered inoperable at first. But Jack was suffering from strokes and doctors decided to go ahead with surgery in an effort to save him. 
During a 12 1/2-hour procedure, as much of the tumor was removed as possible. However, he suffered a massive stroke during surgery. 
"We are lucky to still have him today," said Emily Knudson, Jack's mother. 
Now, 3 1/2 years later, Jack is still going through radiation and chemo treatments. He has lost half of the vision in each of his eyes and has limited use of the right side of his body, his dominant side, along with a host of other issues related to the tumor and treatment.
The neurosurgery required to remove tumors from the brain has advanced amazingly through the past decade, and it was a very brave decision to try to go in and remove the tumor that was at one time determined to be inoperable.  Many adults would not have been able to survive that stroke, but Jack, the fighter, did.

While Jack's been through a lot, he's "never complained", according to Groller - something that's really stuck with the Lehigh coaches and players, too, that have met him this past Spring.

Through the "Victory for a Cause" program from the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley, and his grandfather, Lehigh grad Andy Werner, Jack first met the team at the 2010 Brown/White Spring game.

"They could have given him a shirt, a ball and a hat and said 'nice to meet you' and that was it. But Lehigh has continued to stay in touch, and they have done so much more. They have gone above and beyond what we ever expected."
Head coach Andy Coen and the team most certainly did go beyond what was expected.

The Sunday after Lehigh's victory at Bucknell, Coen "had the family over to the varsity house," he told me in an email a few weeks ago, "where he met the team and toured our facility."

Even Jack's service dog, Hamachi, or Mach for short, got to tour the facility as well.

“I was thrilled to tell our players that we were going to have this wonderful opportunity to ‘adopt’ a young boy who is fighting cancer on to our team,” he mentioned in an official release from Lehighsports.com. “We invited Jack and his family to join our team on October 9th. Our players were very excited to meet Jack and several of our veteran players took Jack around our facility to get him familiar with Lehigh football.”

"He will have access any time he wishes and when he can fit it in during his schedule," Coen added in his email to me. "I am excited about this and he and his family are thrilled and the team is also very happy to welcome Jack and his family to our team."

Jack's schedule, of course, includes chemotheraphy sessions and different medical tests.
"He got a game ball on Thursday,” said Howie Knudson, Jack’s father. “He had an MRI (Friday) and brought the football with him and wore a Lehigh hat. My wife (Emily) said he was telling everyone about his football and hat.”
Since then, according to Michael LoRe of the Express-Times, Jack has been "working out" with the team, also visiting the Lehigh varsity house later in the week and completely embracing his new team, the 6-1 Mountain Hawks.  On that trip he not only got a great grab bag of different Lehigh stuff - he also got to meet many members of the team, including senior QB Chris Lum, senior OL Keith Schauder, senior LB Colin Newton, senior OL Vinny Pelligrini, senior DE Andrew Knapp, and senior DE Cody Connare.

Independently, too, Lehigh football players have gone to show their support for Jack as well.

Last week, a group of nine of them showed up at Jack's karate class at the Hoover Karate Academy. Jack, an orange belt, got his own cheering section - of Lehigh football players.
"The guys were great," said Howie Knudson, Jack's father. "They were cheering him on and filled up that waiting area, which is not that big. They stood out. Everybody knew the Lehigh football team was there to see Jack. And then many of them went out to dinner with us after the karate was over." 
"It wasn't something our guys were told to do," Coen said. "They were free to do whatever they wanted on Tuesday night and came up with that on their own. I think senior LB Shane Ryan was the ringleader. It was their idea, which makes it kind of neat."

“He’s on our team now and he’s as cool as ever,” Newton said to Lehighsports.com. “About eight of us went over to his karate class. It’s just awesome to see what he pushes himself to do. It has been an honor to hang out with him and meet his family. In a way, he’s my idol. To see what he’s gone through so far in his life; whenever I have a test or something, it’s so minor compared to what Jack overcomes every day. It has been a great experience for our team and a great experience for him.”

"The whole experience with Jack has been very rewarding for me," Schauder shared with me by email.."It has been amazing to be able to spend time with him and his family and to be able to affect his life in a positive way. It was very inspiring. Here is this 9 year old kid who has battled through more than most of us will in a lifetime, but you would never know by the way he carries himself. It made me really appreciate all the gifts and opportunities I've been given."

"We get as much out of being with Jack as he gets from being with us," Lum said. "He puts a smile on our faces. We like being around him. We forget how fortunate we are sometimes. We are lucky to be able to go out on a Saturday and play football. Jack can't do many of the things he'd like to do, and yet he stays very positive and never stops trying. He has taught us about the game of life, and I'm just glad we've gotten to know him."

“Our players are lucky to be healthy enough to play college football, but they can and will learn so much from Jack and how he approaches life every day,” Coen said. “I’m looking forward to having Jack and his family come out to Goodman Stadium so he can watch his team play.”

*****

Too often, you read stories about college sports that involve violating rules, or spoiled athletes.  You hear stories about conference realignment, and master plans for some schools' athletic departments to acquire ever more money and treasure from fans.  You hear about TV contracts in the billions of dollars.  You hear about championships.  Computers.  The NFL.

But sometimes, stores about what's really important and positive are missed as a result.  And they shouldn't be.

The efforts of these Lehigh players and coaches - done on their own time, without being asked - deserve to be known, to inspire all of us to do something better in our lives for other people.

I know they - and especially Jack - have inspired me.  More than they probably realize.

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