If you watched the BCS championship game last week between Alabama and Notre Dame, you may have caught an ESPN feature on the adoption of 14-year-old Sam Grewe of Middlebury, Ind., by the Notre Dame football program. And, if you saw it, you’re more likely to remember his inspiring story than the game itself.
Especially if you’re a fan of the Fighting Irish.
But isn’t that how it should be? During the 2012 season, Notre Dame’s coaches and players won something much more valuable and lasting than a crystal trophy and championship rings.
They won a brother.
Like millions of viewers around the country, I was awed that such a storied football program would adopt the young cancer patient. Why add anything else to the white-hot hype and expectations that bloom like Indiana’s perennial purple coneflowers?
For Sam, the story began when he was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, an aggressive cancer in the bone. It often appears in the leg and can lead to amputation. But when presented with options, the athletic and competitive Sam convinced his parents to permit a rare Van Ness rotationplasty. The procedure involves removing the femur and knee joint. With the tumor gone, the foot and ankle are pulled up, rotated and reattached.
It may look like something from a sci-fi movie, but the reversed foot actually becomes the knee and the stump provides better mobility and a receptive joint for attaching a prosthetic leg. Doctors explained to Sam and his family that the unusual procedure – it’s estimated there are just 20 such surgeries each year in the U.S. – was his best shot at ever playing sports again.
That’s all he needed to hear.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had approached South Bend Memorial Hospital, asking if they had a cancer patient the hospital could recommend to be adopted for the season by the team.
Did they ever.
Just two days before his surgery, the football team gathered for an adoption ceremony. It’s a sweet gesture, right? Give him a T-shirt, maybe a few jerseys and pose for pictures while the cameras roll. Make him an honorary member of the team and then get back to spring practice; you’ve got a title to chase, after all.
That might have been the easy way, but that wasn’t the Notre Dame way. He didn’t become just a friend, assistant or booster. He truly became a brother.
A few days ago I spoke with Sam Grewe’s mother, Michelle. I wondered, “Is this genuinely how it worked? How real was this? How much was about optics, public relations or some obligatory service program required of the players?”
“Jason,” she said calmly, “Sam had opportunities with that team that would make grown men cry.”
Not only was Sam and his family given tickets to each home game, he was invited two hours early to the stadium to spend time in the locker room. At kickoff he watched the game with his parents before joining the team on the sidelines during the fourth quarter. After the final whistle, he could often be seen back in the locker room enjoying the postgame celebration and sharing his favorite highlights.
And he didn’t miss a game.
Even when carrying 10 pounds of IV fluid on his back, even when rushing out to vomit in the parking lot, he wasn’t about to abandon his brothers on game day.
But it didn’t start and end with home games. Before away games the players would often visit him on their way out of town, taking time from training and prep to visit him in the hospital on some of the more than 140 nights he’s spent hospitalized over the past year.
It didn’t even end with the regular season. Who flew on the charter jet to the bowl game in Miami? Sam and his entire family.
Notre Dame defensive end Grant Patton spoke of the players’ commitment to ESPN. “We all made a promise to him that he would be our brother. And I believe, at least for me, it goes beyond football, and it goes beyond this season. It’s not a ‘this year’ thing. It’s not a ‘next year’ thing. It’s not a ‘while I’m in college’ thing. It’s a ‘forever thing.'”
Sam’s road to forever is a long one. He has two more rounds of chemotherapy and a lifetime of battling “scanxiety” with his family, a term used by Sam’s mom to describe the fear of the recurring CT and MRI scans to ensure he remains cancer free.
No doubt it will be easier to manage that fear, and anything else life might throw at him, with the support of both a loving family at home and an army of Fighting Irish brothers spread across Indiana, eventually the NFL and many other professions. Can’t you picture Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, the most decorated college player in history, texting Sam during his rookie year in the NFL after his first interception for a touchdown? “You catch that pick 6, Sam?”
Of course he will. That’s what brothers do.
I asked Sam to pick a favorite moment from his time so far as a member of the Notre Dame football team. “It’s hard to choose because there were so many. The Wake Forest game had the most cool moments because I walked out with coach (Brian) Kelly; was in the front row singing the alma mater; and led the victory cheer in the locker room.”
Like his mother said, some of his opportunities would make grown men cry.
The Elias Sports Bureau, ESPN and die-hard fans of both teams will record and remember that Alabama won the BCS title for the 2012 season.
But those most closely associated with the program will record and remember that the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame won something much more valuable over the last year.
They won a brother.