Grossner leads Wildcats despite cancer

Story by Chad Mullens, Writer

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Judging by the way he looks, you wouldn’t expect Baker University head football coach Mike Grossner to be in the final stages of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for stage-four cancer. No hair loss, little weight loss, and he still has a commanding presence over a room when he speaks, despite his voice being slightly scratchy. Chalk that up to the ulcers in his throat.

“It’s like the worst sore throat you can have, all the time,” Grossner said. “The whole back of the mouth is ulcerated, and there are sores on the tongue … I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”

Nor are there signs of turmoil showing in his team’s performance. The Wildcats are now 6-0 after defeating Benedictine College and have held the No. 2 ranking in the NAIA for four consecutive weeks. Players have been inspired to give more on the field for their coach, says senior Michael Lisher.

“He doesn’t want to make an excuse for us or for him,” Lisher said. “He’s really focused on the season right now, but we definitely want to go out and do everything we can for him because he’s definitely given us everything he has.”

Clarence Clark, no stranger to misfortune this year after the sudden passing of former head track and field coach Zach Kindler and a season-ending knee injury suffered in week one against Ottawa University, said that after time to take it all in, the team was ready to work.

“With losing coach Kindler this summer, and then hearing your football coach has cancer, it’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Clark said. “But he told us not to worry, and we have prepared like we normally have.”

Grossner recalled the moment on Aug. 15, just days after his diagnosis and initial surgery, when he was set to address his team at the start of training camp. But this year’s speech would be different.

“I did my normal speech when they come into camp, and I hit ‘em (with the news) toward the end,” Grossner said. “Of course I had this gash across my neck that was swollen because it was three days post-op when I told them, so I think people were wondering what was going on when I started talking, but once I started on about it, there was a pretty good hush in the room, a pretty shocking moment for, I think, most people … The moral of the story is to just don’t put it off. Don’t be stubborn. When your body is talking to you, get it looked at. I always had a mentality that going to the doctor is the last thing I want to do. If I had waited much longer…” he paused. “I don’t know. But I think the timeline of football coming, and the timeline of me knowing that I wasn’t going to have a chance after August to get checked, that kind of hit me. Like it’s now or never.”

Although coaching would be a challenge, there was good news. Even with the cancer being in its most aggressive stage, Grossner was given an 85 to 90 percent chance to survive.

“It was still a little scary, but understanding that it hadn’t spread anywhere else in the body, that was good,” Grossner said.

After finishing treatment, there will be a 10- week wait before he will be able to see the results.

Physically, Grossner is going through the inevitable trials associated with his condition, such as feeding tubes.

“Luckily, I have not once gotten sick,” he said. “I had a couple of times in the shower when I thought I would, but I was bound and determined not to let it out. That’s just been one of my goals through this process.”

He says, whether healthy or not, he has taken various aspects of his battle as personal challenges.

“That is, I think, what sports ingrain in you. Being around sports all my life, especially football, you just accept it, you fight it, and you put that mind-set together that you’re going to win.”

Once Grossner has his taste back, which he says has been one of the more difficult challenges of the chemo process, he has a very big, round, cheesy goal in mind.

“My dream is a big old pizza,” he said, laughing. “I’ll probably sit and eat until I throw up.”

He has not let his treatment get in the way of preparing his team for each game and has not missed any time since the beginning of the regular season.

“I missed two days of work early because of surgery, but the following day I was back to work,” Grossner said. “We give the players off on Monday because we come in on the weekends, so Monday has been my big chemo day.”

Grossner’s determination not to fall behind has resulted in long work days in the past month-and-a-half.

“I still work while I’m doing chemo and radiation,” he said. “It’s about an 8 to noon deal Monday, other than that I’m in and out of radiation before anybody’s awake. I’m up there by 7:45 and back here by 8:15.”

If he did have to miss time, the head coach is confident that his assistants could fill in more than adequately.

“We have a staff that we’ve put together and established, for most of us, over seven or eight years, some of us 11,” Grossner said. “I felt like I had prepared my staff way before this for something that if I was removed, we would move like a machine.”

Offensive coordinator Miguel Regalado and defensive coordinator Jason Thoren have been the main cogs, filling in for Grossner when he is unable to speak on Sundays after very loud and excited Saturdays that wear out his voice.

“They have done phenomenal, and I expected that,” Grossner said. “I have given them a lot of responsibility on both sides of the ball, and they’ve taken upon that responsibility well before this August, so they were prepared.”

He has been receiving all of his medical care in Lawrence, which he says is a reason he wants to speak publicly about his cancer. He wants friends, family or anyone in the community to know that they do not have to fly out of state to receive top-notch, “phenomenal” medical care.

Support for Grossner has come from all over the country and in every form. From a card from the grandmother of one of his players, well-wishes from his former NFL Europe teammates, to a network broadcast shout-out during the Kansas City Chiefs-Miami Dolphins on Sept. 21, the outpouring of encouragement has been a surprise to Grossner.

“It’s crazy what social media can do,” Grossner said. “All of the people that I’ve heard from, that I’ve had friendships throughout my life, have contacted me. It’s just kind of a cool, deep thing that my experience hopefully can help our football team, our coaching staff and whoever is close to us realize that life moves on, life is going to hit you and every day, so you just gotta keep pushing and keep going. It’s not going to stop just because you have cancer.”

The message from the Chiefs’ game was from Green Bay Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy, a Baker alum and teammate of Grossner’s at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, who relayed the message to broadcaster Kevin Harlan. Grossner got word of it quickly, and was quite shocked at the reaction.

“I was not watching. I was driving back from Springfield and had my phone off,” Grossner said. “I was with my youngest son, and all of a sudden we stop to get something to eat, and I check my phone and it’s blowing up.”

At the beginning of the battle, Grossner was more worried about his family than his own health. But according to the father of three, the support has been “super.”

“It’s nice to have that support system,” Grossner said. “My kids are learning a life lesson, that dad could be gone just like that, and we’ve had the opportunity to prepare for that.”

No matter the challenge, Grossner continues to stay determined, whether it be squamous cell carcinoma or taking his football team to heights that it has never achieved.