Before halftime of the season opener, Baker University’s football team, full of preseason promise, saw their quarterback and their top wide receiver, who doubles as their kicker, suffer serious knee injuries.
After reaching No. 2 in the NAIA national poll, the Wildcats learned their starting defensive tackle was found dead in his room from an apparent suicide.
At the wish of the player’s father, the team carried on, and the Wildcats reached the season finale against a rugged opponent with a chance to reach the playoffs. But Baker fumbled away its final best scoring chance late and lost by three.
Coach Mike Grossner navigated the Wildcats through a season with more than its share of emotional peaks and valleys. But failing to get Baker to the postseason is his bottom line.
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That is consistent with his approach. “You are what the scoreboard says you are, I’ve always believed that,” Grossner said.
In this case, the 2014 scoreboard was incomplete. It said nothing about Grossner surviving cancer.
Grossner got the news Aug. 12 that doctors at Lawrence Memorial Hospital had found squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer, on his neck. His children, Emma, 17, Jake, 13 and Ryker, 9, were his first worry.
“Have I taken care of them?” Grossner said. “Have I done all the right things?”
Mike and his wife, Karen, made calls, spoke with family members, financial people and put affairs in order.
The long-term prognosis of squamous cell carcinoma is generally good, but when it’s found in the head or neck there’s a greater risk of metastasis to the lymphatic system, so learned Grossner. He devoured everything he could read on the subject, including the odds of full recovery: 85 percent.
What left him unsure was how to address the team at its first practice Aug. 15. But with his neck swollen and laced with stitches, there was no masking the disease.
Quarterback Nick Marra felt a different kind of stillness when Grossner dropped the news.
“Really quiet,” Marra said. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Make it productive, Grossner told himself.
“My goal here was a life lesson,” he said. “Maybe they can learn from this. I’m a young guy, 48, this can happen.”
Find something odd on your body? Get it checked. Grossner didn’t do that when he discovered a lump on his neck last spring. He never thought much about it after he shaved. Summer plans were kept, football finished up, family time at a home in the Ozarks, prep for the season.
In July, Grossner kept a dentist visit, and while in the chair expressed some concern about what he thought was a cyst. See a specialist now, Grossner was told.
The biopsy was on a Friday, and Grossner, swollen neck and all, kept a golf date with Karen that afternoon. “I played good,” he said. “My last round, it turned out.”
On Tuesday, about 5:30 p.m. he got the word. Doctors remained unsure of the mass, but whatever it us, it had to come out.
It did. And that’s when the Grossners learned precisely what they were dealing with.
Baker was set to begin its 107th football season, Grossner his 11th, and he was determined to miss as little of it as possible. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment started Aug. 18, the first of two-a-day practices, and the beginning of daily trips to Lawrence.
Tuesday through Friday, Grossner was back in the office before 8 a.m. Mondays were the long days, chemo and radiation that took him into the early afternoon. He worked on game plans and was back for practice.
Monday also was weigh-in day, and Grossner vowed not to let his body wither. He had lost his taste buds and developed sores and ulcers in his throat, but he insisted on the same menu each Monday.
Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, salad, pudding, chocolate milk and Boston cream pie, all to keep on weight. So did Malt-O-Meal with brown sugar. Grossner pounded the stuff on the regular basis. He weighed 220 when the process started and never fell below 200.
When practice started, there was Grossner.
“When he started this process, he made it clear to us he wanted things to go normally as possible,” assistant head coach Jason Thoren said.
There were some complications.
A port, or catheter, was implanted in his upper chest that provided doctors access to his veins for treatment. About two weeks into practice, Grossner developed a blood clot near the port and exertion put him at risk of a stroke.
“I was just concerned about not stroking out during the season,” Grossner said.
He checked in regularly with athletic director Theresa Yetmar, who wanted to make sure Grossner wasn’t overexerting himself, and sometime she went straight to Karen Grossner for the bottom line.
“Football is such a grind and it can wear you down, but Mike is such is a warrior,” Yetmar said. “We wanted him to know that if he needed to back off of some of the duties, breaking down tape, meeting with players anything like that, it was covered.”
But in eight weeks of daily treatment, Grossner missed two practices. On Saturdays, Grossner was on the sidelines, even when doctors suggested he’d be more comfortable sitting in the press box.
“That wasn’t going to happen,” Grossner said.
Through it all, the Wildcats took on the combative nature of their coach. The injury to Marra in the opener could have been season-ending. But Marra was determined to play with a partially torn ACL — his third such tear in the last 1 1/2 years. He finished the victory over Ottawa and appeared in seven games.
A blocked extra point gave Baker a victory over Sterling, and the Wildcats improved to 6-0 with a victory over Benedictine at Arrowhead Stadium. They finally lost in overtime at rival MidAmerica Nazarene.
At 7-1, Baker still felt good about its direction. Grossner actually had some procedures delayed until mid-December, after the NAIA Championship, because he felt so good about the team.
An improved Culver-Stockton team was next. A Wednesday practice had gone well until Grossner met with his coaches afterward. Defensive tackle Sione Maumau, a sophomore from Highlands Ranch, Colo., never arrived.
Because of injuries on the line, Maumau got his first start the previous week, played 86 snaps and graded out well.
Grossner had settled in at home and had turned into the Royals in game seven of the World Series, when he got a call from Thoren with the news. Maumau had been found dead in his room.
Baker’s enrollment is 3,210. The campus is close knit. The school year started with the devastating news that Zach Kinder, the school’s cross country and track and field coach since 2007, had died of heart attack at age 35.
Baker president Lynne Murray was to be inaugurated the next day. The event was canceled.
“It’s something you don’t believe until you have to believe it,” Marra said.
Grossner wondered whether the Wildcats should play that week, but a message from Maumau’s father, Viliami, who played at Colorado and briefly in the NFL, addressed the team and said his son would have wanted them to play.
“During the game, guys were coming off the field with tears in their eyes,” Thoren said.
The Wildcats committed five first-half turnovers and lost.
“You could tell, the kids just weren’t there,” Grossner said.
The season that had started with so much promise was down to two games and Baker likely had to win both to reach the playoffs. The Wildcats took the first one, but dropped a heart-breaker at home to Missouri Valley 27-24. Baker finished 8-3.
When the 16-team NAIA bracket was announced, Baker wasn’t included. The final postseason poll was released just before Christmas. The Wildcats were No. 17.
“We had worked hard,” Grossner said. “We got to No. 2 in the country and if we had finished, done everything well, we could have been No. 1 going into the tournament. How many opportunities are you going to have in that position?
“But you’re what your record says you are.”
And yet, the team and season will hold a special place in Grossner’s heart. They bonded through injuries to key players throughout the season, mourned the loss of a teammate and battled cancer as a program.
The well-wishes came from around the nation. One of Grosser’s junior college teammates and former Baker player Mike McCarthy, now the Green Bay Packers coach, sent well wishes through commentator Kevin Harlan during a Chiefs’ broadcast.
After the season, Grossner’s spirits soared when he learned that several of his former players from California had put together a video tribute and posted it on YouTube.
Throughout the semester, Grossner walked a fine line. He didn’t want his condition to become an issue or distraction, but he also didn’t hide it and was honest with his coaches and players who simply asked how he was doing.
Ever the football coach, Grossner played that card. The night before the third game, the team gathered at a hotel and Grossner told the players he turned 49 the next day. Cheers.
And that it could be his last birthday. Groans.
“I just wanted them to push a little hard if things weren’t going their way,” Grossner said. “My wife didn’t like me doing that, though.”
It worked. The Wildcats won, and the good news is Grosser likely won’t be able to pull a similar ploy again.
Just before Christmas his port was removed. The recovery process continues, but all the signs are positive.
“Everything looks good, but nothing tastes good yet,” Grossner said.
It will again. And he’s well on the way to planning for 2015. The Wildcats should be good again, perhaps better than last season.
But Grossner and the Wildcats will never experience anything quite like 2014.