College football: St. John's (Minn.) punter plays through brain cancer
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — Andrew Steffenson might not see much varsity action for the St. John's University football team this season.
The sophomore backup punter is part of a roster that already includes a four-year starter at his position in senior Griffin Toomey.
But fretting about playing time is not a high priority for the graduate of DeSmet Jesuit High School in St. Louis.
Just being back on the field is already victory enough.
That's because Steffenson has long been dealing with a cancerous brain tumor — a type known as oligoastrocytoma.
It's already required two surgeries, one as an eighth-grader and the other as a high school junior, as well as a six-week series of radiation treatments as a freshman at St. John's last winter.
But through it all, Steffenson has never given up on football.
"This is pretty important to me," the 6-foot, 210-pounder said prior to a practice this past week.
"I just enjoy being out on a football field, and being part of a team with all these great guys. It's something I've always looked forward to, no matter what else was happening."
A long road
Steffenson's ordeal began in elementary school, and with a condition that turned out to have nothing to do with the one he has long battled.
"He would get so excited about something — like a birthday coming up, or Christmas, or a trip back to Minnesota — that he would come home from school and just start vomiting," said his father Troy.
"He'd vomit until he was worn out and he'd go to sleep. Then he'd wake up in the morning and be fine."
The family brought Steffenson in for examination and the condition was diagnosed as abdominal migraines, which he eventually grew out of.
But doctors also discovered something else, a lesion on his brain.
"The brain scan was just a part of the process, and it was a fluke that they actually discovered it," his mother Kathy said. "Because it had nothing to do with the abdominal migraines."
Fortunately, the discovery meant doctors could keep a watchful eye on it.
"They decided to keep following it closely year after year, and the summer between my seventh and eighth-grade years, they saw it had grown," Steffenson said. "So they did a biopsy and discovered it was a brain tumor."
That meant surgery. Doctors originally thought they had gotten it all, but followup examinations revealed there was still something there.
"They didn't know if it was just a scar tissue or what, but they wanted to keep examining it," he said. "And my junior year, they saw more growth, so they had to perform another surgery."
His recovery time after each surgery was short. He was out of the hospital within days, and back in school within weeks.
"He went in for the second surgery on a Thursday night, the same night as the Gophers (football) opener," said Troy, whose Minnesota ties have clearly rubbed off on his son.
"And the first thing he did when he came out was ask the nurse if they had the Big Ten Network. He wanted to see the game."
"You always worry with a surgery like that what they are going to be like when they come out of it," Kathy added. "But when he said that, it just showed me I had my child back. No other kid would ask that."
Through it all, Steffenson was determined to remain involved in athletics, especially football.
"We talked to the doctors and they said it was up to my parents," Steffenson said. "I think my mom might have been hoping they'd say no. But when they gave that response, they decided they wouldn't hold me back."
"We thought since he was a kicker, he'd probably be OK," his father added. "He doesn't see a lot of contact."
Making it work
When it came time to look at colleges, Steffenson was drawn toward Minnesota.
The family has long vacationed near Paynesville in the summer, and they used one such vacation to schedule a visit to Collegeville.
"I actually first heard of it my sophomore year when there was a college fair at my high school and I came across St. John's there," Steffenson said. "Then the following summer we went for a visit and I just fell in love with the place."
Steffenson has many family members who live in the Twin Cities area, and friends of his family reside in Cold Spring. That helped make his parents more comfortable with him going to school so far from home.
"And he just loved it," his father said.
"You could tell he was where he wanted to be."
Steffenson played football last fall. But in October, doctors called his parents to inform them they needed to examine more closely what they'd seen in his last examination before leaving for college.
That happened while he was home for Thanksgiving break. And again, there was more growth.
This time, though, doctors opted to try something different.
So Steffenson began radiation treatments after working out a schedule that minimized the impact on his academic schedule at St. John's.
"I left St. John's a week early during the first semester and I came back two weeks late," Steffenson said. "The treatment ran from mid-December to mid-January.
"There were some side effects. It left me more fatigued and I was tired throughout most of the day. But I preferred that to brain surgery. Compared to the other things I've gone through, this wasn't that bad at all."
The hope was to stabilize the growth. But an examination afterward showed it had actually reduced the size.
And he is now back on the field in Collegeville, where head coach Gary Fasching said he is an inspiration to his teammates.
"I think it shows guys that sometimes bad things happen," Fasching said. "But it's how you handle that and how you respond to it. He's done a great job of responding. He never complains. He never feels sorry for himself. He just goes about his business.
"If you'd asked me last spring, I didn't think he'd be back. But he's persevered and he's here now. That says a lot about him."
And Steffenson said all he has gone through makes each practice even more special.
"That's the biggest thing," Steffenson said. "This whole process has made me enjoy everything I have — all the time I have in a day. If they hadn't have found that tumor on my brain when I was a kid, who knows where I'd be right now. But I was lucky enough to have great doctors.
"And that's made it possible for me to be able to do all this."
This article was written by Frank Rajkowski from St. Cloud Times, Minn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.