'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.
Wirkus instructed Abby and Hunter, who was born with autism and a bilateral cleft lip and palate, to undergo testing at Primary Children’s Hospital.
“We took them up and I started crying because this overwhelming feeling of, ‘OK it’s over.’ For some reason I knew we were going to find out,” Kathy said. “We got home and Dr. Wirkus called. He said, ‘I need you and Don to come in without the kids tomorrow.’”
She lowers her eyes in memory. As if it were yesterday, she clears her throat, unable to mask her heartache, and mourns. “I said, ‘I know you know what it is. Will you please tell me? He said, ‘I believe it's something called Morquio syndrome.’”
His fears were confirmed. Abby and Hunter were born with Morquio A, an extremely rare, inherited disease that camouflages internal deterioration without necessary, combative enzymes. Those affected develop an array of health difficulties and often live only through adolescence to early adulthood.
“I think you come to the realization that their life span is going to be shorter, but you don’t ever accept it,” Don says. “From the day we found out we’ve been preparing for this big window, but I think the closer we get the more sorrowful it’s going to be.”
Uncertainties plague the household as exhaustion infects the mind. Hardships confined within hospital walls magnify conventional stresses. “It affects everything from your self-worth to anxiety over whether your child is going to live another day,” Kathy says.
Collectively, Abby and Hunter have endured more than 40 surgeries, submerging the family into million-dollar medical bills. “Every month we’re barely making it,” Kathy says. Several times they’ve struggled to survive invasive procedures. Doctors once placed toe tags and mistakenly asked to harvest organs, assuming they’d been called home.
On a late autumn evening this year, Abby wished she would.
“Abby was crying this one night and I was trying to rock her,” Kathy recalls. “I gave her morphine to try and ease the pain. It wasn’t working and somehow Wyatt heard her cry. He walked in halfway asleep, put his arms around her, held her and said, ‘Abby, I love you. It’s going to be OK. I’m here for you and I’m never going to leave you.’
“She said, ‘Wyatt, it’s so hard. I’m so sorry. I just can’t anymore.' He said, ‘I need you to do this for me. The pain will ease; just keep breathing.’ He stayed up with her until he left for school that day."
That was the day the cheerleaders said, "Come here, Abby."
"The Star-Spangled Banner" finishes minutes before kickoff. It’s 7 p.m. on another Friday night. Lone Peak emerges from the locker room as the Harwoods excitedly watch from the grandstands.
Personable and outgoing, Abby initiates a conversation with two bright-eyed boys watching the cheerleaders. “I’ll introduce you to some of them,” Abby said confidently. Forever, a decision is frozen in time. It was that moment the squad extended an invitation for her to cheer the routines she’d already memorized — permanently.
“I remember when I was little I’d always look up to the cheerleaders,” Alayna Garrity explained. “Seeing her in that position was hard. Why not make her dream?”
“That gave her purpose,” Kathy says. “Even in those darkest moments of sheer pain she could keep going. I don’t think they realize how she was literally dying. I know very well it does come down to: Are you going to take that next breath, or are you not?”
An unexpected act of kindness had granted a lifelong wish. “I’m so grateful — no one will ever know,” Abby says, her voice trembling. “It’s made my life change. It’s made me more positive; I’m not sad. I’m so grateful for the people in this school.”
The kindness had only begun. Unaware of the cheerleaders’ actions, the football players presented Hunter his own, custom-stitched Lone Peak jersey and asked him to be the third football player in the Harwood family.
“Shocked doesn’t even describe it,” Kathy says. ”I was completely dumbfounded."
“Making him part of the team was natural,” Dylan Murdock explains. “You see them and you love them. There’s so much more to life than football and sometimes you get stuck in that moment. Then you see these kids and it’s like, ‘What would they give to be out there?’”
Wyatt, who suits up on the JV team, was overcome. “I had no clue they were doing it. They just did it because they were good people. It meant a tremendous amount to me.”
Friendships blossomed, replacing lives consumed by evaluations, medication and loneliness with a sense of belonging. “All they wanted was a taste of what it was like to be normal,” Kathy says. “These kids made them popular in a world where they never would have been.”
The football season has passed, but the connection remains. Recently, Hunter fell into life-threatening septic shock. Understanding the severity of the condition, players dropped by unannounced for extended visits with Hunter, reaffirming what Hunter already knew.
“This team is made of real superheroes,” Kathy says smiling. “These are the real guys in his mind.”
Early in the season, during a routine practice, Gajkowski exposed his Batman-decaled backplate to Hunter’s amazement. “I told you he was Batman,” he said delicately.
“That’s his secret identity, huh?” Kathy replied.
Blessed with God-given athletic ability, Gajkowski was taken aback. “He literally believed I was Batman,” Gajkowski says. “A lot of times in football no one really believes you can win. Just knowing that someone really believed not only in me as a football player, but me as a person was incredible.”
Society sometimes isolates perceived weaknesses from misguided fears of stopping progress to accompany the frail in an accelerated life. Teenagers engulfed within individual agendas — not from malice but rather immaturity — forget appreciation is obtained behind the crowd.
“After some of the rougher games I’d come off the field and I wasn’t having it,” Gajkowski explains. “I didn’t perform well; my body was hurting; it’s tough emotionally. Then you see Hunter’s got the biggest smile on his face. Stuff is bigger than the game.
“It puts it into a different perspective,” he continues. “Obviously, I feel blessed for the life that I’ve lived, but it’s a feeling that’s different. I come off the field almost in tears to (hear) Hunter say, ‘You played great.’ There’s times that felt sweeter than winning. You can look at it as we’re helping them, but in all reality I’ve never been touched more by anyone else in all of my playing through football. It impacted my life.”
Cheerleader Morgan Hellbusch relates: “(Abby) made us such better people. We’re so much more positive about our lives.”
The lessons were equally shared. Abby’s feeble spirit was replenished with hope while Hunter’s interaction struggles improved.
“Hunter got to a point where he was realizing he was different than other kids, both physically and mentally,” Don says. “I think it’s given him a real boost in self-confidence. Abby was getting to a point where she was depressed. She was starting to become a recluse; she didn’t want to do anything.
“I played sports in high school and I can honestly say that I don’t think I was mentally available to do what they’re doing,” Don says. “Society is filled with great kids that haven’t figured out how to be great yet. Here, there’s a group of kids that have figured out life is greater than having the latest cellphone. It’s about building relationships and giving joy.”
Front-office doors activate upon the Harwoods arrival. The family maneuvers through hallways sketched with Lone Peak’s mission statement, “Committing minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of mankind.”
Two assemblies are scheduled for the annual “Gold Rush” fundraiser, and Abby is the honorary speaker. “I was like, ‘Oh, man. I’ve never talked in front of that many people,’” she says giggling.
Hundreds of students funnel into the auditorium, their attention fixated on the young 14-year-old. Abby always desired to help those in need, and she finally figured out how.
“My mama always told us that my dad was her knight in shining armor,” Abby says with her parents at her side. “I hoped that I would find that when I was really sad, lonely and with what I felt was no hope. I was not only given a knight — I was given an entire army. I thought the best way to show my gratitude was to grow (the Harwood Family Foundation). I want others that have similar problems as my brother and I have to be able to feel the love and help like I do.
“If I can ease pain, give joy, comfort and love, then my life has been worth more than I ever had dreamt. It is my hope that I get support to start this foundation, (so) I can truly make a difference before it is too late. I believe everything happens for a reason. I want to thank you for your time and hearts. You are my knights in shining armor.”
Winning a football championship eluded the Knights in 2013, but for senior Jacob Irving and his teammates the life-changing sentiment was invaluable. “At that moment I realized we didn’t need a state championship to realize how much potential we have to do good.”
“It is the moment,” Kathy says. “You really have to live every moment — just keep breathing. Huh, Abby?”
Abby beams. “Yeah,” she says modestly.
“Just keep breathing.”
Note: For those wishing to donate, the Harwood Family Foundation is launching a website this week, harwoodfamilyfoundation.com. Information is also available at lonepeakgoldrush.com.