Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

January 14, 2013

Middlebury resident Sam Grewe enjoys being an adopted Irishman

MIAMI — With the stadium sound system blaring loudly and pom-pom-waving fans cheering wildly, Sam Grewe of Middlebury took his deliberate strides among the elite of college football last Monday night.

The 14-year-old Northridge Middle School eighth-grader offered high-fives to his Notre Dame football brothers on the turf of Sun Life Stadium as they went through their warm-up drill prior to the BCS National Championship game against Alabama.

“That’s actually been his routine at all the games,” said Sam’s mother, Michelle.

A week ago was no different, except for a national title was on the line for the undefeated Irish. Despite the eventual humbling loss to the defending champion Crimson Tide, the Grewes capped an incredible season-long experience and millions who happened to catch ESPN’s pre-game coverage got to learn about Sam’s inspiring story.

Osteosarcoma diagnosis

Sam has been an athlete all his life. Before basketball season as a seventh-grader, Sam grew 6 1/2 inches, according to his mom. When he complained about pain in his right knee Michelle suggested it was because he was growing.

She would eventually take him to the doctor for an X-ray.

“It was right there on the X-ray,” Michelle said. “Right above his knee you could see the cancer.”

That was Sept. 22, 2011. After some more testing, Sam was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a common form of bone cancer. The infected bone was just above his right knee.

Sam immediately began a 21-round regimen of chemotherapy and faced a complex surgery called rotationplasty, where a significant portion of his leg and his knee would be removed.

The top of his ankle would then be rotated and reattached to the bottom of his thigh. Essentially, his foot was reattached backward and his ankle would become his knee.

Before the surgery, though, Notre Dame football officials had learned of Sam’s challenge. Head Coach Brian Kelly showed his team video highlights of Sam’s seventh-grade football season at Northridge. He looked like a star as he ran over defenders and caught passes for big gains.

In April 2012, just two days before Sam’s surgery was scheduled, the team conducted an official adoption ceremony at its training facility on campus. Players and coaches wore “Grewe Crew” T-shirts, and from that moment on Sam was officially considered a member of the 2012 Fighting Irish football team.

“(Notre Dame officials) realized that Sam’s surgery was quickly approaching and moved up the ceremony,” Michelle explained. “So, that weekend before the surgery, all we were talking about as a family was this adoption ceremony. That was a Monday and it went above an beyond our expectations. We drove down to Indianapolis the next to get ready for the surgery on Wednesday and we were all still going on that adrenaline from the adoption ceremony.”

Sam wore his Notre Dame hat to the hospital and took his “Believe Like a Champion,” sign the team had made for him, Michelle said.

The surgery was a success and Sam now wears a prosthetic limb that fits over his foot, which now serves as part of his shin. He has become quite mobile and functional with his prosthetic.

Something to look foward to

The rounds of chemotherapy continued as the 2012 football season kicked off in September. Randy and Michelle would drop Sam off with the team about two-hours before kickoff each home game. No matter how Sam was feeling, he never missed a home game, even if he was on an IV.

“Throughout the season Sam always had something to look forward to,” said his father, Randy. “He had access to the players and the locker room during those home games. We could go over there whenever we wanted for training table, which is their evening meal.

“It was an incentive when Sam was going through five, six, even 10 days of chemo to be able to, when he got out of the hospital, go over and eat dinner with the team. It was something to look forward to.”

On game days, Sam would walk on the field during pre-game drills and players would give them high-fives, just as he did last week. Before Notre Dame’s final home game — senior day — against Wake Forest back in November, Sam walked out on the field with Coach Kelly.

After the game, a decisive Irish win, Kelly and Notre Dame captain Manti Te’o stood with Sam in front of the team in the Irish locker room. Kelly then turned to Sam and asked him to lead the team in the school’s alma mater. Sam counted down, one-two-three, and the entire team erupted into fast-paced song.

“He never told us about that,” Michelle said. “It sort of just came up in conversation one day. I was like, ‘What!?’ Sam said, ‘Well, you never asked.’”

After Notre Dame had locked up a spot in last week’s title game, the Irish hosted their annual football awards banquet. The Grewes attended. On their way home they stopped at a convenience store near campus and bumped into Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, Michelle said.

Swarbrick said the team wanted to invite the Grewes along to be part of their BCS National Championship experience in South Florida. The Grewes were thrilled and accepted.

“We cannot say enough good things about Jack Swarbrick,” Randy said. “He really went above and beyond in taking our family into the Notre Dame family.”

The Grewes ended up flying down on a team charter flight and staying in the team hotel in Miami Beach. Sam would run into the players and they would call him by name and chat with him.

One day at the hotel pool, Sam and his family were thinking about going swimming. Michelle said Sam was a bit nervous. He had never taken his prosthetic off in public. After all, he basically has half a leg with his foot sewn on backward.

In the pool wereNotre Dame players Carlo Calabrese, Robby Toma, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Te’o, who several weeks earlier finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. All of them, Randy remembers, were encouraging Sam to get into the pool.

“When you have those guys sitting there saying, ‘Sam, Sam, come in Sam,’ it holds a lot more weight than Mom saying, ‘Go ahead, get in,’” Michelle said. “Once he did it the first time, it was much easier the second time.”

A touching feature

During the season, officials at ESPN caught wind of Sam’s story. ESPN Journalist Tom Rhinaldi and his crew visited the Grewe’s home in Middlebury. The result was a four-minute feature on Sam and his family that aired during the pre-game show. Millions saw the telecast.

“We didn’t get to see it when it first aired because we were at the stadium,” Randy said. “But when it did, our Facebook notifications and messages on our phone exploded. It wasn’t until about 2:30 in the morning when my daughter and I got back into the hotel room and began ready the messages. It was very touching.”

Rinaldi, an award-winning journalist who worked for WNDU-TV in the mid-1990s, visited the Grewes’ home in Middlebury while filming the piece and got to know the Grewes a bit.

On BCS game day, he invited the Grewes to the College Game Day set on the sidelines and into the network’s “war room” as they prepared for that night’s telecast.

“He was great to us,” Randy said of Rinaldi. “He made sure we met certain people. It’s a big day for ESPN, it’s their Super Bowl. Yet they still found time to stay with us and show us around a bit.

“You just had to pinch yourself to realize, we really were there.”

During Rinaldi’s touching feature, Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. alluded to the fact that it was Sam who touched and inspired this team. Whatever they may have given Sam, his attitude and perseverance more than returned the favor.

“When he’s with us, he’s just one of the guys; he’s hanging out, coming up to the training table,” Golic explained during the ESPN story. “It’s tremendous perspective. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model.”

A great experience

Sam met up with team around 6 p.m. as they got off the bus and went to the locker room with them. He joined them on the field during warmups, offering high-fives as the players ran past him during drills, something he’s done all season.

The Grewes had seats behind the Notre Dame bench, but Randy and Sam watched most of Monday night’s game from Swarbrick’s luxury box in Sun Life Stadium.

As the clock ticked down on Alabama’s 42-14 victory, Sam accompanied Swarbrick onto the field and then into the Notre Dame locker room.

“He said it was quiet and that the guys were really trying to hold it together, but Sam never tells us too much,” Michelle said. “I think even though they lost it was a great experience”.

After it all, Sam remains mostly quiet about the experience. He is visibly uncomfortable with the outside attention and mostly offers one-word answers to questions from reporters.

When the Grewes returned home last week, Michelle and Sam took a taxi to Memorial Hospital in South Bend to take a blood draw, while Randy and Sam’s sister, Audrey, tended to the luggage.

Today Sam will start round 20 of 21 of his chemotherapy. Michelle said the final round is expected to be conducted in February and they’re hoping for a clean bill of health by March.

In the end, the Grewes believe Notre Dame gave them an incredible gift and helped them through the most challenging and frightening time of their lives.

People sometimes say they’d give an arm and a leg to be part of something like Notre Dame football, Michelle pointed out with a laugh. Sam lost a leg, and both Michelle and Randy adamantly admit they would have traded this whole experience for Sam’s health.

Still, they hope the Notre Dame family got as much out of Sam’s presence as he did theirs.

“I think the whole experience was a win-win situation,” Michelle said. “I’d like to believe there are a handful of players who got as much out of this as Sam did.”

Randy is confident that some of the players who showed an extended interest in Sam this season understand the bigger picture of life.

“They didn’t have to do it,” Randy said, “but they see that there’s something else out there beyond football.”

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