REESE — The Reese players are in their lines for pregame calisthenics when coach Bob Saylor walks onto the field.
Senior captain Chad Gruber shouts:
“Hey, boys, guess what day it is?”
“What day is it?” they yell back.
“It’s game day!” he screams.
By then the players are whipped into a frenzy and game day is on.
Game day is a big day in Reese, a community on the edge of the Thumb, some 10 miles north of Frankenmuth.
Football is the sport of choice in Reese, which is perfect for Gruber, who gave up baseball in his junior year so he could drive to a training facility in Midland to improve his speed and agility for his senior season when he planned to start at quarterback.
But there are no game days on the football field for Gruber this fall. His game days are restricted to the University of Michigan Hospital, where he undergoes chemotherapy and will begin radiation treatments after he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma.
“It’s a somewhat common type of cancer for kids,” said his mother, Sue. “It can be in your extremities, it can be in your head, it can be in your neck. Really, Chad’s place was a better place to get it. I don’t know if he’ll agree with that.”
He might not agree because his tumor was found in his scrotum, near a testicle, and it first surfaced as the size of a BB.
It had been there for months, but his doctor didn’t seem concerned until it began getting larger last spring and Gruber was warned it could be cancerous.
“I had thought about it like, ‘What if this is cancer?’ but no, I didn’t think it was cancer,” he said. “The urologist wasn’t concerned about it so neither was I.”
That’s why he was stunned when it was removed and he was told it was cancer.
He learned of the cancer at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in mid-July and was told one of his testicles would have to be removed.
The family went to U-M for a second opinion, and after meeting with a team of doctors and undergoing a battery of tests in Ann Arbor, Gruber had surgery a few days later because a lymph node tested positive for cancer.
“I think ignorance and his youth worked for him, where Mark and I were just freaking out,” Sue said, referring to her husband. “Chad and his brother, Trevor, were talking and Chad said: ‘Well, I’ll still probably be able to play football through chemo.’ “
That was the naïve part talking.
Gruber, a 3.9 student who turns 18 next week, had no idea what chemotherapy entailed because, well, he is in high school and cancer is supposed to be for old people, not teenagers.
But soon he was told of the extent of the chemotherapy and its side effects.
Everything bad he’d heard about chemotherapy came through.
“I have a cycle of three drugs,” Gruber said. “The first Tuesday I got all three of them. And then there is this hydration system. It took an hour for one drug to get in and then a half-hour for the other two combined to get in.”
The worst part is the hydration system, which moves the chemotherapy through his body and eventually out.
“The hydration system means I have to be hooked up to an IV through my port, because there’s something with the drug that would affect my bladder so it has to get through me, so I’d be up all night and pee all night,” he said. “I had 6 liters that had to go through me in 12 hours. I had two 3-liter bags of fluids to go through me, which is a ton.”
It got to the point that even being in the hospital caused problems for Gruber.
“I used to not have a problem or anything,” he said. “But now the alcohol, the cleaners, the smell of the hospital, the tubing, the wrappings and everything makes me nauseas. I throw up every time I’m down there now.”
As he underwent chemotherapy for 10 weeks the side effects took their toll on him.
Just getting out of bed was a chore and there were a couple of weeks that he couldn’t muster the strength to go to school.
“The other day I thought that I never thought I’d rather be at school than somewhere else,” he said, laughing. “The teachers are all understanding and stuff. They work with me.”
Saylor broke down when he learned of Gruber’s cancer.
“Football goes right out the window,” Saylor said. “The least of your concerns is football. When he called and told me, I started crying. What are you going to do? Here is a kid that’s done everything you’ve asked him to do. He totally bought in to what the program is all about. He was voted a captain by his teammates and then not to even have that opportunity. But even more than that is the thought of this cancer taking his life. That’s’ the most important thing.”
Saylor had coached Gruber for two years before the cancer, but his toughest coaching assignment came when the youngster told him he had cancer.
You can go to all of the coaching clinics you want and learn how to defend every offense known to man, but no one tells you what to do when one of your players is diagnosed with cancer.
Still, Saylor was able to get through to the youngster.
“I knew he’d be upset about the football thing,” Saylor said. “As a coach you try to be there for him and support him. It’s a tragic thing, but the bottom line you sell him on is, hey, you’re going to live. You’re going to have a life. You’re going to have a family. You’re going to be able to do things.
“Yeah, I’m going to lose an athlete, but there’s another athlete. There’s no more Chad Grubers.”
Adam Jansen has been one of Gruber’s best friends for as long as either can remember. He traveled with Gruber to Midland last spring to work out and prepare for this football season.
“I guess I was just shocked more than anything when I heard about the cancer,” Jansen said. “I didn’t know what to think at first. At our age you’re supposed to be invincible.”
As Reese prepares to begin the state playoffs next week, Gruber is preparing for his next step. He has 10 more chemotherapy treatments, but he is better prepared this time.
“If I drink enough water before and after, I only have one bag of hydration,” he said.
He also is preparing for 23 days of radiation, which will be just over four weeks of Monday through Friday treatments.
Initially, Gruber wondered why he had to undergo both chemotherapy and radiation when the cancer had been removed.
“The way I look at it is I don’t really have cancer,” he said. “That’s removed; that’s gone. This is just pretty much precautionary, which that kind of upsets me more because hey, if it’s precautionary, why is it so long?
“The radiologist guy made me think more about it. He said if they don’t cure it the first time, you don’t survive if it comes back. Their numbers definitely show that.”
As he spoke, a Livestrong band hung around his right wrist. The bands help support the cancer-fighting foundation once headed by Lance Armstrong.
“I’ve worn these since eighth grade,” he said. “I had read his book in the eighth grade and again in my sophomore year. Well, I never thought I’d be wearing this for me.”
Through the years, Gruber never thought about a lot of things which have changed his life forever.
He never dreamed he would have cancer, and he never thought anything could keep him from playing his senior year of football.
“I’d say missing football is worse than having cancer,” he said. “I miss everything about it — the contact, the practices, everything.”
He actually liked the practices?
“Now I would,” he said, “before, not so much.”
Over the past few months Gruber’s attitude has changed about a lot of things. Things that used to seem so important mean nothing anymore.
He hopes to recover enough to be able to play basketball by the end of the season, but as he has learned, he can’t count on anything for sure.
That is why he lies in bed at night and asks the unanswerable question? Why me?
“I’ve asked that question quite a few times,” he said.
He hasn’t received an answer to that question, and is trying to understand when people tell him that no matter what happens to him the rest of his life, nothing can be worse than what he has gone through this fall.
“I’m, hoping that I’ll realize that,” he said. “Maybe someday.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.