BAKER – Fast. Strong. Unstoppable.
For three years, opponents have struggled finding the words to describe Luke Gonsioroski almost as much as they’ve struggled defending him. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Baker quarterback has all the tools to make his dream of playing college football a reality – a future he’s had his eyes on since he could grip the laces. But six months ago, all of that went silent.
“I didn’t think it was real. You don’t think it’s real. It’s a scary word,” he said.
The only word anyone could associate with Gonsioroski last March was the one you never want to hear. The warning signs started in February.
“I remember track,” recalled teammate Angus Lund. “Luke’s fast, way faster than I am. We were doing conditioning one day here, and he was a little slower than I was, and he had this coughing issue. And it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’”
"He finally came in for an actual chest X-ray,” said Luke’s mother Katina, who works as a nurse in Baker. “It was one of those things where he was just going to run in, get a chest X-ray, and leave. When they finally did say it’s cancer, it was just complete panic. And Charlie is calling the clinic, saying, ‘OK, is the cat scan done? What’s going on?’ He’s talking to my other nurse friend, and I’m having a complete panic attack saying I can’t talk to him right now.”
“Which I knew was bad,” said her husband, Charles. “Most of the time she picks up the phone. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the diagnosis is not good.”
The X-ray revealed a large black mass on one of Luke’s lungs. Doctor’s orders called for four rounds of chemotherapy, and then if all went well, surgery to remove the tumor
“It was two days before his junior prom,” said Katina. “He had plans to go to Missoula, he had plans to go to Bozeman. You’ve seen people go through this that’s weeks and months and months and years. I literally threw myself on the floor and said, ‘I do not want to do this. I do not want to do this.’”
Luke started chemo on March 29.
“It’s like it’s fake,” Luke says about the treatments. “Like the whole world is fake. You’d take a shower and you didn’t feel the water on you. It would numb everything, and I hated that because it made me feel even worse.”
The worst part was not being able to go back to school – the drugs gave Luke a much higher risk of infection, so he had to be home-schooled.
“Luke and I were going to run for President and Vice President of the school,” said teammates Josh Stutts, who has known Luke since childhood. “Being together with him the whole time planning it out, and then with him not there was odd. I had some classes that just felt empty.”
For the first time, doubts crept in that Superman wasn’t invincible.
“I wasn’t overly concerned about him playing football,” admitted Baker head football coach Dave Breitbach. “I guess I was really concerned that he’d be alive and be a healthy kid and be able to do the things he wanted to do in life.”
“You know, you lay in bed at night and your mind can go crazy,” said Charles. “But you know, you hang on to your faith. Luke was probably better than I would say we were. There was no doubt in his mind.”
The one person that should have worried the most was the most positive in the bunch.
“I knew it was going to be fine,” said Luke. “I don’t know how to explain it, I just knew. My mom thinks I’m a worrywart. Little stuff, I’m always bothering her with, ‘What’s that? Is it bad?’ But, to me, this is as bad as it can get, so no sense in worrying anymore.”
Superman hadn’t met his Kryptonite yet. After just three rounds of chemo, the cancer was gone. But the tumor still threatened his heart and lungs – it had to come out. Billings doctors sent the family to Yale Cancer Center in Connecticut.
“That was probably the longest day,” Charles said of Luke’s surgery. “Probably about five hours in, they give us an update saying it’s going good, and then it was nothing.
“Everybody’s gone. The two ladies running the waiting room, they actually left, and said, ‘Hey, if this phone rings, you can answer it because you’re the only ones left.’ So then you’re anxiety is really starting to pick up, thinking, ‘OK, what’s going on?’ Dr. Detterback walks around the corner, and he’s smiling, so that’s a good sign.”
After 16 hours, doctors were able to remove an eight-pound tumor and the top lobe of Luke’s right lung.
His first question when he woke up?
“I had a breathing tube in, so I couldn’t talk,” Luke said. “My dad was next to me, and I had a pen, so I wrote to him, ‘Can I still play football? Did they get it all?’ and he said, ‘Yeah and yeah.’”
By July, Luke was throwing again. By camp in August, running again. And on Sept. 2, leading his Baker Spartans into their season opener.
“It was a roar,” said Lund. “The ground was shaking.”
“Sometimes you couldn’t see, because you had watered up your eyes a little bit during that time, too,” said Breitbach.
“The outpouring from the people across the state, we cannot say enough about that,” said Katina. “That is literally what got us through it.
“We came home and the counter was full of cards, footballs from other teams, you name it, boxes. Talk about tears.”
But nothing could compare to the generosity of their hometown. Days after Luke’s surgery, a devastating tornado ripped through Baker while the family was still in Connecticut. The Gonsioroskis were sick, but again, the Spartans picked them up.
“I remember feeling for the poor town and the people like, ‘How much more can these people give?’” said Katina. “And they just kept giving!”
“You’d talk to them, and they’d be like, ‘How’s Luke?’” Charles added. “They just went through this horrific storm, a tornado – house is demolished – and they wouldn’t even worry about their house. They’d ask how Luke’s doing: ‘Is he gonna play football?’”
The man who could answer always had the same one.
“People always say, ‘How does it feel to be back?’” said Luke. “But I always tell them, I never left.”