THE WHY? FOUNDATION - TOUCHSTONE THURSDAY
By Josh Rosenblat on Sept. 28, 2012
Luke Strotman stands in the parking lot of Adams Field, silhouetted against a mostly gray sky streaked with the orange rays of a setting sun. Luke watches the Deerfield sophomore football team’s game against Waukegan. Calm, talkative and joking, Luke will be taking the home turf for the final time in just a couple of hours as a member of the DHS varsity football team.
Although he has been a part of the team for the past four years, Luke has never caught a pass, made a tackle and isn't listed on the team's roster. That doesn’t mean that Luke fails to help DHS win though. As the ball boy, Strotman sprints on and off the field giving the referees fresh footballs from the sidelines whenever they are needed.
“Honestly, if he didn’t have a shaved head, you wouldn’t know he had cancer,” Mark Strotman, Luke’s brother, said.
Luke has waged a 13 year war against two types of cancer, with a third battle commencing this summer.
When Luke was 4 years old, doctors told the Strotman family that Luke had a cancer known as neuroblastoma. The cancer is a tumor that develops in nerve tissue and is usually found in infants and young children. Luke underwent radiation treatment and the neuroblastoma eventually subsided.
Nine years later, however, Luke said he was feeling increasingly sick. After going to the hospital, tests came back with dreadful news. At 13, Luke faced his second battle with cancer. As a result of the chemotherapy used to treat the neuroblastoma, Luke developed acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer that begins in the bone marrow and can quickly move into the blood stream. In order to cure AML, Luke received a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Mark.
This summer, Luke sat in a hospital room at the Lurie Children’s STAR Clinic in Chicago. After he arrived, two Chicago Cubs players paid him a visit. Tony Campana, who is now cured of Hodgkin's lymphoma after ten years of treatment and Anthony Rizzo, who also battled the disease, gave Luke a Cubs jersey with his last name on the back.
But what Campana and Rizzo really gave Strotman was a jumpstart on the optimism he would need to get through the next few minutes, let alone the next week, month or year.
“The happiness only lasted an hour,” Beth Strotman, Luke’s mother, wrote on Luke’s CaringBridge page, a website for cancer patients that updates friends and family of the patient’s progress. “Dr. Kletzel came in to tell us that the blood test showed blasts, or immature white blood cells, were present. That could only mean one thing: our hearts are broken and four years after battling AML, the leukemia is back.”
Luke began a new journey to defeat cancer on June 18, 2012. He began his chemotherapy less than a week after his seventeenth birthday.
During Luke’s first round of chemotherapy this summer, Mark shot him a quick text while at work just to check up on him. Mark asked Luke how he was doing and what he was up to.
“Nothing. Getting chemo,” Luke texted his 22-year-old brother.
Nothing. Getting chemo.
It is that passing reference of the potentially deadly treatment of chemotherapy that makes Luke such a hero to Mark. It isn’t that Luke doesn’t understand what he goes through, Mark says, but his optimism always shines through as he is willing to go through whatever it takes to get better.
“I texted him in order to boost his spirits,” Mark said. “But he boosted my spirits with that text. He is being such a trooper through all of this…here I am worrying about Luke getting this chemotherapy and he is just kind of shaking it off. I’ll remember that text for the rest of my life.”
Evidenced by his nonchalant text message, Luke’s positive outlook on his situation gives not only himself the strength to keep fighting but it inspires his family to keep up the fight alongside him.
“Having a positive attitude is half the battle. Our family could not be more positive about it and that is led by Luke. Luke is probably the most positive out of all of us. He keeps us going, which is unbelievable,” Mark said.
On Aug. 28 just before 7 p.m., Luke Strotman walked out to the mound at Wrigley Field. He peered down the 60 foot, six inch path towards his target: Cubs pitcher Brooks Raley. Pitching out of the stretch, Strotman lifted his left leg up off the dirt cocked his right arm back and let the ball go.
“I was worried. I thought that it was going to seem like a long throw,” Luke said. “But once I got on the mound, it did not seem like that long of a throw.”
Earlier in August, the Cubs sent Luke a video featuring Rizzo and Campana, along with owner and family friend of the Strotmans Tom Ricketts, encouraging him to keep battling against leukemia and offered Luke the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field.
“When Rizzo said, ‘We want you to come throw out the first pitch,’ I nearly lost it,” Luke said.
But for Luke, the first pitch was only a small part of what made the night of Aug. 28 so special.
The Strotmans were expecting the results from tests that Luke had taken to come back either that day or the next. Based on the results, Luke’s doctors could determine whether his AML was in remission.
“We were all kind of on pins and needles,” Mark said. “It was funny because we didn’t know whether we wanted to find out before Luke threw out the first pitch because if he wasn’t in remission, that was pretty much bad news.”
Before arriving at Wrigley, Beth informed those who were traveling with the family that she just received a call from Dr. Elaine Morgan with the results of the tests. The tests came back showing that the cancer was in remission.
“I got a little teary because, you know, I don’t have to go through any more of this chemo and stuff,” Luke said. “It could not have been a better night: throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game and finding out I’m cancer free.”
Although being in remission doesn’t mean that Luke is totally cured of AML, it does mean that he can start to prepare for another bone marrow transplant later this year.
“He’s as good as he could be right now,” Mark said.
The night served as a testament to the strength of Luke and his family. Moments of pure joy like this are hard to explain and have been few and far between for the Strotmans this summer.
“It was just unbelievable news. It couldn’t have been better timing. It was honestly like it was out of a movie,” Mark said. “We were on our way to have this amazing night and we found out some even more amazing news.”
With beads of sweat dripping over their silver facemasks and onto the turf at Adams Field during preseason two-a-days, head coach Steve Winiecki’s Warriors were getting ready for their first game against Zion-Benton. Coming off a conference championship in 2011, every member of Winiecki’s team was hungry to get back onto the field, even Luke Strotman.
Normally, Luke would be out at practice helping with bags of equipment and would be another set of watchful eyes for the coaching staff. This year, however, Strotman wasn’t physically present at Deerfield’s training camp like he was in the past.
As position battles raged and coaches installed plays throughout the summer, Luke endured chemotherapy and constant trips to the hospital in an effort to be ready for the Warriors’ opener on Aug. 30.
After a few rounds of chemotherapy, clearance from Dr. Morgan and three days removed from finding out that his cancer was in remission, Luke was ready for week one.
“I just remember walking out of our walkthrough before we got on the bus and there was Luke and his dad. Luke was ready to go,” Winiecki said.
Although neither Luke nor Winiecki had any doubt that Strotman would be attending the game, their emotions were hard to overcome.
“When I just saw coach Winiecki for the first time in who knows how long, I really thought I was going to cry and I thought he was going to cry also. We gave each other a big, big hug and he just wanted to know how I was doing. I told him, ‘I was doing fine. I told you that I would do everything I could to get to this game and I’m right here and ready,’” Luke said.
Luke’s relationship with Winiecki began when he coached Luke’s older brothers Mark and Jack in high school. After getting to know each other better through Luke’s years at DHS, Luke now looks at Winiecki as a mentor and role model.
“Four years later, Winiecki is a guy I look up to. He’s one of the reasons why I just keep fighting hard. Every time I wanted to just quit the battle, I just remember him always telling us that you don’t ever give up the fight, you keep fighting until the final whistle and that is, just simply, what I did. I don’t think I could have gone through this without Winiecki,” Luke said.
The feeling, Winiecki insists, is more than mutual. Winiecki, along with the Warrior football team look to Luke for motivation and as an example of what persistence, perseverance and hard work can accomplish.
“We look at Luke as our inspiration,” Winiecki said. “It’s that you’ve got this guy who is fighting this disease with every ounce of energy he has and putting up this battle every day… He’s so selfless and this is what gets me so choked up about it…You talk about ‘fighting the good fight,’ we talk about that in the game, but that is so trivial compared to what he’s doing. And those are the lessons. You know, winning is fantastic. We want to have conference championships but the lessons we get out of sports in general, and football in particular, is being selfless and sacrificing for some greater good. That is what Luke’s doing, but his greater good is his life.”
As one last Hail Mary attempt by DHS quarterback Ben Ethridge fell to the turf to end a 14-7 loss to Waukegan, Luke raised both hands to his head, looked towards the dark September sky and winced.
Luke rarely showed signs of anguish when battling cancer, but as the clock struck zero and with the Warriors down by seven, he seemed vulnerable. He wasn’t vulnerable in the sense that he was weak, but it was as if his positive and hopeful personality vanished for that instant.
For Luke, Deerfield football isn’t just another sports team. He never appears sorry for himself that he can’t play, it is simply enough for Luke to be a part of the team. That was all Luke needed to drive him toward getting back on the field against Zion-Benton and maintaining an encouraging outlook even when doctors diagnosed him with cancer for a third time.
But it isn’t cancer that is on the forefront of Luke’s mind right now; it is how the Warriors may fare without him. Luke’s senior season will be cut short as he prepares for his second bone marrow transplant in four years in an effort to win this battle and ultimately his war with cancer.
“I just expect the team to do what I always want them to do,” Strotman said. “That is just to play their hardest. I don’t care if they get a win or a loss. I just want to see them work their hardest. My season is coming to an end very soon and I just hope they continue playing hard even though they might have to spend the last four games of the year without me. I hope they still can keep up their spirits.”
Taking a lesson from Luke, keeping their spirits high shouldn’t be all too difficult.