HUNTLEY, IL — Lucas Gidelski may only be 14, but considering everything that has been thrown at him in a relatively period amount of time, his life experience seems much greater than his adolescence suggests.
His father’s career has kept Lucas and his family on the move, jumping from Michigan to Wisconsin and finally to Huntley in 2014. Over the summer, David Gidelski hoped that after eight years in one place, Lucas’ settling into a new high school and onto Huntley’s freshman football team might help jumpstart his son’s confidence at an age at which awkwardness can be more of the rule than the exception.
But when Lucas was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma less than two months into the school year, everything changed. Lucas, who had been the starting quarterback for the Red Raiders football team, began chemotherapy treatments that made him nauseated and zapped him of his energy. It stripped him of his ability to walk and created sores in his mouth that made speaking painful and difficult, just weeks after he was living the life of a normal teenager.
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But as Lucas has settled into what could be a lengthy cancer fight over the past six months, he has — perhaps almost unknowingly — helped raise awareness about the realities of a young boy living with cancer not just around Huntley but to a much wider extent.
Just months after an unexpected sideline meeting with Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown at Soldier Field went viral and landed him on the NFL Network, Lucas was recently selected as the annual champion for Champions For Cures, an Illinois not-for-profit organization that raises funds for cancer research while also building awareness about the disease and those who fight it.
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Champions For Cures this year partnered with ESPN 1000 in Chicago for the first time to collect nominations for the annual honor. Last year, the initiative raised $170,000, half of which went to cancer research and the other half of which went to the recipient’s family, according to Gary Benedik, the organization’s co-founder.
Now in the initiative’s 12th year, Lucas was selected as this year’s champion after being nominated by Huntley Athletic Director Glen Wilson, who happened to be listening to ESPN 1000 when the partnership was announced. Wilson, a long-time sports talk radio listener who has a special affinity for the “Waddle & Silvy” show, immediately thought of Lucas, who he figured was the perfect fit for the Champion For Cures initiative.
Lucas was selected out of 20 nominations, and Champions For Cures will design marketing efforts and special events with Lucas and around the Huntley community in an effort to again raise funding that helps to lighten Lucas’ family’s financial burden while also benefitting a cancer charitable cause of Lucas’ choosing.
“He’s got a lot of fight,” Benedik told Patch of Lucas’ cancer fight this week. “It’s motivating. We’re all dealing with (cancer) in some way …But when the elevator doors opened at ESPN 1000 and Lucas is in a wheelchair and he has sores in his mouth and so he really can’t articulate his excitement. You just feel so bad for the entire family, including Lucas, and so that just drives motivation to get this (initiative) going even more.”
Given all Lucas goes through on a daily basis, the significance of being named a champion has not completely sunk in yet, his father says. But at Huntley, where another high school student named Madison is going through her own cancer fight, awareness surrounding the disease has spiked significantly in a student body, Wilson said. Students and the Huntley community have rallied around two of their own, who have put a face on the fight with which seemingly everyone has a connection.
For Lucas’ family, the support has been overwhelming.
“I would have never thought that a tragedy would have turned into where things are at this point,” dad David Gidelski told Patch on Wednesday. “From (Lucas) getting to meet his favorite (NFL) player to getting a jersey from him to this — it’s lifting his spirits and helping him get through all of this and allowing him to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“If anything, it helps him keep his mind off (the cancer).”
Since being diagnosed with lymphoma in October, Lucas has been unable to attend school due to the side effects that come from his medication and the weakness that comes from his chemotherapy treatments. He had to needed to learn how to walk again and is constantly fighting through bad days when his illness strips him of his motivation to do much of anything.
Along with the physical toll cancer has taken on him, Lucas struggles as a 14-year-old to understand why he has to fight through this, although he and his family know that things could be worse. Yet, through all the struggles, there are moments — such as his chance meeting with St. Brown in November and the recent designation as a champion that included a tour of ESPN 1000’s downtown Chicago studio and the ABC 7 news studio when Lucas’ family sees glimmers of hope.
During the downtown visit, which included taping a video message with ESPN 1000’s Marc Silverman, who co-hosts the station’s sports talk show “Waddle & Silvy” with former Chicago Bears wide receiver Tom Waddle, Lucas “was more himself,” his father said.
Lucas has never been one to seek out notoriety and has never been one to be the center of attention, his father said, but as he met Silverman — who himself is a cancer survivor — and ABC 7 anchor Tracy Butler, who survived breast cancer, Lucas joked and smiled in ways he often doesn’t around strangers, David Gidelski said.
As he often does, Lucas wore a ski hat representing his beloved Detroit Lions, which Silverman said in a videotaped promotional message that he would happily overlook. In the video, he praised Lucas for his toughness as he continues to fight. During the visit, Silverman also encouraged Lucas to only control what he can.
“What I stressed to him to not look at the long-term outlook, but take things one day at a time, fight, and get to the next day,” Silverman told Patch. “Control the task at hand for that day. Soon, the days will pile up, and he will make it through and will be cancer free like me and will be giving advice to others when he’s older.”
He added, “In my journey, I found that when the head is right, the body follows. But I’m a grown man, and he’s just a child who has missed a ton of fun stuff a normal sports-loving high schooler should be going through.”
For now, Lucas’ focus remains on getting through each day. On Easter, he and his dad and younger brother threw a football around their yard. It marked the first time that the three have been able to do so since Lucas’ cancer diagnosis. The moment brought tears to David Gidelski, who said his role now includes that of being both a father and a coach who sometimes has to encourage Lucas to get out of his wheelchair on the days when he feels like he can as a way of focusing on the bigger picture and what life will be like post-cancer.
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But in that moment, as his 14-year-old son stood on his feet and threw a football with a degree of accuracy that is now the standard rather than how far Lucas’ strength allows him to throw the ball, a simple game of catch became a milestone.
Wilson, the Huntley athletic director, says he can’t fathom what the family is going through.
“It’s sobering when you watch someone go from being a student-athlete participant and being vibrant and participating to just not,” Wilson told Patch. “Just knowing he played basketball, and he couldn’t go out for basketball, and he had to stop football workouts because of the abrupt change in his life is very sobering, and you just try to find a spot where you feel like you can help.”
With the Champion For Cures campaign now beginning, the awareness of Lucas’ story and others like him is just beginning, Benedik said. He hopes by announcing the annual champion earlier in the year, more awareness and funds can be raised — both for Lucas and his family and for cancer research. But as Lucas continues to be helped by this cause and others his fight has brought attention to his story, his father hopes that in time, Lucas will be able to give back in ways he has seen come his way.
“The biggest hope is that he can then feel like he can make a change for others that are going through this exact same thing as others have made a change for him,” David Gidelski told Patch.
“The goal is, as he continues to look back at the challenges at the things that he is doing that he would be able to help support people in a bigger capacity because he was that type of person prior to this, but right now, I right now, I think he is just sitting with his own (fight) ….and so now, it’s just more trying to keep him motivated to say, ‘Let’s keep going, let’s keep pushing, let’s get past this and let’s show people as opposed to tell people.”
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