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Cancer survivor adopted by Notre Dame’s football team sets his sights high

Sam Grewe set a world record in the 2019 Parapan American Games with a leap of 1.90 meters. Team USA Photo

The doctor waited for the 13-year-old boy to amble out of the office before he closed the door. Privacy assured, he told the boy’s mother that the knot that had been growing on her son Sam’s knee — causing him pain, hindering a burgeoning athletics career — wasn’t a symptom of an infection or a strained ligament. Osteosarcoma, he said. Cancer. He let the words hang and offered a hug as Michelle Grewe absorbed the news in silence.

As they found their bearings, Michelle and her husband, Randy, initially hid the revelation from Sam. Their son, who had been a middle school basketball and football star in northern Indiana, wouldn’t even be allowed to play the new Wii game they had bought him for Christmas. Too much jumping, they learned. Too dangerous.

When the holiday arrived two days later, Sam overheard his parents explaining the diagnosis to family while he was playing on the floor. His brown eyes widened as he gazed up at Michelle: “I have cancer?”

That cancer would go on to claim much of Sam’s right leg, but it didn’t claim Sam. After doctors removed the tumor, resolve metastasized within him — its growth nudged along by a loving family and a school that would soon feel like one.

A medical journey

Treatment at Memorial Hospital of South Bend began just after Christmas. Each round of chemotherapy required a monotonous week at the hospital followed by another recovering at home. Michelle watched Sam square up to the struggle without complaint, ever polite to doctors and nurses, retreating inside himself when it hurt most.

Surgery would be required by spring. Either his knee could be replaced with an artificial joint and he could keep his leg but lose his ability to play sports, or he could attempt a rare procedure called rotationplasty, in which the joint and a sizable chunk of his leg would be completely removed, and his ankle and foot would be rotated and placed where his knee once was. It would enable him, with the aid of a prosthetic, to run and jump again — at a permanent cost.

Initially, Sam leaned toward a simple joint replacement, but as the procedure loomed, he began to envision a life without the fulfillment sports offered. He began peppering his parents with questions about the alternative procedure. Immediately, they cast their own doubts and worries aside and supplied him with all the information they could find. As soon as Sam’s opinion changed, so did his father’s. “He made up his mind,” Randy says. “We were 100% behind him.”

After the surgery, performed in Indianapolis, Sam returned to his weekly chemotherapy routine in South Bend for the balance of the year to ensure that no rogue cancer cell might survive and spread. Despite the rigors of the treatment, Sam says he felt a weight lifted after the fist-sized tumor was removed along with so much of the rest of his leg, understanding that not all the other children who shared the hospital with him had been afforded the same fate. “I knew I had another opportunity that others weren’t lucky enough to have,” he says.

All the while, the Grewe family and the Notre Dame football program began to foster what would become a lifelong relationship. The team wanted to adopt a child with cancer as one of its own — head coach Brian Kelly had done something similar during his stint in Cincinnati — and knowing what a stellar athlete Sam had been, hospital staff pointed the team to the Grewes.

After Grewe lost part of his leg to cancer as a teen, Notre Dame football players often hung out with him in the hospital. Submitted by Michelle Grewe

During Sam’s innumerable trips to the hospital for chemotherapy, Notre Dame players frequently visited him, ate meals with him, played video games with him and treated him like one of their own. Sam reciprocated, spending time with his “brothers” in the locker room and attending several games through a season that would culminate in an appearance in the national championship game. Michelle recalls that en route to one game, Sam, with chemotherapy still taking its toll, leaned out of the family’s truck to vomit, then insisted they press on.

Sam’s ordeal led him to miss nearly all of his seventh and eighth grade years. When he started high school in 2013, his fear that he had fallen behind ensured he never would. Not only did Sam thrive in the classroom, but he made the freshman basketball team as he gradually adapted to wearing a prosthetic. He wasn’t the same athlete he had once been, but Randy was proud to watch him learn to hold his own. As the year wore on, Sam picked up lacrosse and then, in the fall, football.

Randy, though, could see his son struggling to cope with the transition from star player to one unable to make a sizable impact. At first, Sam resisted his father’s suggestions that he compete against others with comparable limitations. “I was still fresh off an amputation,” he says. “I didn’t really want to be considered disabled.”

Sam eventually agreed to take part in a meet held in Chicago by the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association and tried his hand at a range of track and field events. Eventually, he found success in the high jump, his natural athleticism propelling him over the bar even if his technique was lacking. His performances qualified him for international competitions, starting with the Parapan American Games in Toronto in 2015 and, improbably, an appearance in the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Qatar later that year. Only 17, and the youngest competitor among the above-knee-amputee high jumpers, Sam won a world championship with a leap of 1.81 meters. The next year, he claimed silver at the Paralympics in Rio.

All the while, he kept his sights set on school. He was accepted into every college he applied to, but when the acceptance letter from Notre Dame arrived, “something clicked,” he says. “This is home. This is where you need to be.”

Sam walked onto Notre Dame’s track team as a sophomore, proud to become a student-athlete at the school just like the big brothers he came to know in his hospital room. Now a junior preparing for medical school, he carries a 4.0 grade-point average and claimed another world championship, his third, this November in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — on his mother’s 50th birthday.

The indoor training facility Sam frequents at Notre Dame is the same building where his formal “adoption” ceremony with the football team was held in 2012. He has stayed in touch with several players, some of whom have forged careers in the NFL, and still crosses paths with Kelly. “It’s not a relationship that just fades,” Sam says.

Despite Sam’s myriad public accomplishments, Michelle is proudest of her son’s quieter triumphs. He mentors young athletes with disabilities, connecting with children who, like he once was, are uncertain how they might fit into the world or how they might be hindered — children who, eyes wide, have had to look at their parents and ask the hardest questions.

Sam cheers them on when they compete, reminding them that they shouldn’t be afraid to set the bar a little higher.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.