'Bigger than the game': Lone Peak football players and cheerleaders grant wishes to 2 terminally ill children
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
HIGHLAND — Lone Peak quarterback Baron Gajkowski painfully surveys Rice-Eccles Stadium. Teardrops saturate his swollen eyes. Black makeup tars his masculine cheekbones. The realization of the Knights’ season-ending loss in the 5A state semifinals deepens with every step toward the locker room.
Slowly, Gajkowski’s slouching demeanor lifts as two admirers devotedly wait in the frigid November night. He recognizes them. One of the two, a young boy, shields his maroon-outlined jersey while the boy's sister clings to gold-soaked pom-poms with oxygen tubing strapped to her wheelchair. Gajkowski conceals his sorrow, kneels to the frozen turf, and poses for pictures.
Equally emotional, Kathy Harwood photographs her children with the rising star as teammates assemble alongside their captain. The universe had crumbled in the lives of the teenage athletes, but, before long, each player embraces the children, whom Gajkowski labels “our greatest fans,” with hugs and high-fives.
“I’m sorry we didn’t win the championship,” Gajkowski says.
The camera drops to its string as Harwood pauses in motherly expression. Her voice cracks, “Are you kidding me? You’re the greatest champion I’ve ever met.”
In August, members of the Lone Peak football and cheerleading programs identified an opportunity. Abby Harwood dreamed of being a cheerleader. Her brother, Hunter, wanted nothing more than to play football — ordinary requests, but unimaginable for the terminally ill. At ages 14 and 11, the siblings are fighting the clock.
Unbeknownst to parents, coaches or administrators, the Lone Peak athletes and cheerleaders collected personal funds, purchased jerseys and invited the two Harwoods to become honorary Knights.
“They didn’t have to win the championship to be champions,” Kathy says.
Nearly 19 years have passed since Don and Kathy Harwood sealed their love in matrimony. Kathy never visualized leaving the single life until Don romantically captured her affection.
“Honestly, I think a lot about why I got married,” she explains. “I got married because I loved him. I wanted to have kids with him, and I wanted to grow old with him.”
Pregnancy proved heartbreaking. Despite taking preventative shots designed for incompatible blood types, the couple suffered through multiple miscarriages.
Apprehensively, they kept trying, until finally, three months premature, Kathy delivered a healthy baby boy named Wyatt. In six ensuing years the family welcomed Dylan, Abby and Hunter to the family.
Seasons turned without complication before Abby’s health foundered.
“When she was 5 years old?” Kathy says, peering toward Don for confirmation as to when Abby's health began deteriorating.
“Between 4 or 5,” answers Don.
“(Abby) wouldn’t walk anymore. She would lay down halfway through the day and cry in pain," Kathy recalls. "She could not function anymore. I had taken her to something around 15 doctors — they kept telling me it was in my mind; I’m just a worried mom.”
Two years passed without an answer or antidote for Abby’s increasing pain. The problem seemed hopeless until the family discovered Dr. Paul Wirkus. “I sat there and said, ‘Help me. I’m not going anywhere until you find out what the problem is,’” Kathy said.
During his examination, Wirkus wanted to see Abby walk. She waddled. “He tilted his head and said, ‘Hmm, well that’s not right,’” Kathy said.