Saturday, June 25, 2016
CAIRO, Neb. — He stood on the mound, brown hair poking out below his cap, a glove on his left hand, a baseball in his right.
It could have been so different for the young pitcher. But his mind is far from that now, far from the scar running up his right arm, far from the chemo.
He’s thinking about throwing a strike. He’s thinking about what his American Legion coach told him. Relax. You know how to do this. You’re just playing catch.
Teammates call from the dugout. “You’re all right, Chase.” “Make him swing.”
Chase pitches. The batter swats a grounder to third, but is thrown out at first.
Then 15-year-old Chase Caspersen steps from the mound and heads to the dugout.
He’s the fifth generation in his family to play the game, learning to pitch, hit and field from his father and grandfather on a makeshift field in a pasture.
Baseball still matters to Chase and his parents. He still loves the game, still loves hearing a good pitch thump in the catcher’s mitt and how the bat feels in his hands.
But he and his parents are forever changed, and playing baseball is no longer just a sport but a gift, a reminder of how life could have been so different.
Michelle, Chase and Craig Caspersen relax at home. Chase is the fifth generation of Caspersen men who have played baseball in Boelus. At left, a photo at home of Chase with his parents during Chase’s chemotherapy.
Chase’s mom noticed it first. Six years ago Michelle Caspersen spotted a bump on Chase’s right arm while they ate dinner at their home in Boelus, Nebraska, near Grand Island.
The discovery would lead to agonizing decisions for his parents and the prospect that Chase might lose his arm or even his life because of bone cancer. The World-Herald first shared the family’s story in May 2011.
Chase’s surgeon now considers the teen cured, but when he was diagnosed, the outlook was uncertain and frightening.
Michelle and her husband, Craig, weren’t too worried about the bump at first. Chase was nearly 9 at the time, an active, healthy kid who loved fishing and roaming their acreage with Murphy, his Labrador-poodle mix.
His parents figured that maybe he just banged his arm riding his four-wheeler.
But soon Michelle’s mom instincts told her to get the bump checked — fast.
After two initial medical exams, tests at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha confirmed the diagnosis: osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
It’s rare, with roughly 1,000 cases each year in the United States. There’s no known cause.
A CT scan showed that the cancer had not spread, and though it can be deadly, the cure rate is 60 to 70 percent when caught early.
Chase faced months of chemotherapy and surgery.
Dr. Sean McGarry, an orthopedic surgeon and faculty member at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told Chase’s parents that if the chemo shrank the tumor enough, he could remove it and replace the damaged section of bone.
But if the tumor didn’t shrink enough, he would likely need to amputate just above the elbow.
McGarry advised Michelle and Craig that trying to save the arm was riskier because tumor cells could spread during the surgery. But he was willing to try. McGarry’s goal was to use a bone donated from a 56-year-old deceased woman to replace the section of Chase’s arm bone damaged by the tumor.
The Caspersens told him to try to save their son’s arm. But if it were necessary to save his life, amputate.
They told their son he might wake up from surgery without his arm, but that his life was more important.
The boy understood.
When nurses wheeled him away from his parents and into the operating room, he began to cry.
After a nine-hour surgery at the Nebraska Medical Center, a nurse delivered good news: The surgeon saved the arm.
Michelle will never forget seeing nurses rolling her son down the hallway after the surgery, his right arm resting on top of a pillow, heavily bandaged but all in one piece.
“Look, Mom,” Chase said, wiggling his five fingers.
Chase, center, sits with teammates from left, Nolan Gleason, Kile Bentley, Zach Perez, second from right, and Garrett Fulton, right, before a game against Grand Island this month.
Chase’s first throw sailed high.
It was spring 2011, nearly a year after the surgery that saved his arm and his life.
He and his dad stepped onto the front yard of their home to play catch, and Chase felt worried. He had gone through months of physical therapy on his throwing arm, but hadn’t tossed a baseball.
Chase knew his arm worked for writing, drawing, eating, brushing his teeth and combing his hair, but would it work for baseball?
Start slow, his dad told him. Don’t pitch it. Just toss it.
Chase pulled back his right arm and tossed the ball to his dad 40 feet away, but it flew over his head.
Father and son laughed. Chase relaxed.
His second toss landed smack in his dad’s glove, and father and son traded smiles.
Chase laces his shoe before a game. Since coming back from a rare bone tumor, Chase has been a more relaxed, confident and outgoing player, his coach says, and is always one of the last players to leave batting practice.
Chase missed two seasons of baseball because of his surgery and the chemo treatments that followed. When he began playing again with his Little League team in spring 2012, he knew he needed work.
When he practiced pitching, he released the ball too early, sending it high, way above the strike zone.
And his hitting was off. His swing wasn’t level, with his bat dipping just as the ball arrived, producing strikeouts and foul tips. For Chase, it seemed like a whole season of swinging and missing and watching the ball fly backward after getting nicked by his bat.
Chase’s baseball skills were rusty, but that wasn’t the only problem. The surgery required the removal of some of the muscle and ligaments surrounding the tumor.
McGarry, the surgeon, said even though Chase’s hand and arm worked fine, the boy needed to learn how to make it work for baseball.
Chase spent hours practicing his pitching and hitting with his coach, dad and grandpa. It took weeks, but his pitches began finding the strike zone.
And finally near the end of the season, in a Little League tournament, bat met ball. Chase crushed a triple, bringing in a run that helped win the game.
His teammates cheered, and his mother cried.
Chase walks from the dugout to the field to warm up with teammates before playing Grand Island this month.
The sun dipped low in the sky and the dugout cast a shadow onto the American Legion field in Cairo as Chase trotted to right field.
On this June evening he was the starting pitcher, but also played right field, where he’s known for his speed and ability to throw out greedy runners trying to turn a single into a double.
Chase still wants to win, but losses don’t bug him as before. He still wants to pitch strikes and send batters to the dugout, and he gets frustrated when he doesn’t — but he lets that feeling slide away.
Chase knows life is more important than giving up a hit.
Roger “Skeeter” Wooden has coached Chase since before his diagnosis and sees a more relaxed, confident and outgoing player. After a loss, if teammates are hanging their heads, Chase cracks a joke that snaps the glum mood.
He tells funny stories in the dugout that keep teammates loose.
The coach knows that teammates look up to Chase because of what he’s been through.
Chase is one of the older members of the team and is a leader, the coach said, not because of anything he tells them or just because he’s a survivor. It’s because of what he shows them on the field.
He always practiced and played hard, but since coming back from cancer, he pushes himself even more.
He’s always one of the last players leaving batting practice, often asking the coach to toss one more ball, and another and another.
He dives for balls in right field. He chases full speed after balls even if it’s clear the runner will reach base first.
Chase knows how fortunate he is, how blessed. He met kids in the hospital who didn’t make it.
At top, Chase, center, comes in for a huddle after the fourth inning with his team, the DCB ponies, during a game against Grand Island this month. Below, Craig holds a photograph of his father, Marvin Caspersen, in his baseball uniform.
Practicing hard and playing full out is his way of taking nothing for granted and a way of showing that the kid who had cancer can play as tough as anyone.
He has experienced a setback. In 2013 while playing basketball for his grade school team, he fell after getting bumped. He extended his right arm to break his fall and ended up breaking the donor bone that McGarry had put in during the cancer surgery three years earlier.
He underwent a 19-hour operation during which McGarry and plastic surgeon Dr. Fred Durden transplanted an 8-inch section of bone from Chase’s lower leg to his right arm. The surgery was successful, but Chase still faced months of physical therapy and another season away from baseball.
This month Michelle and Craig sat in lawn chairs in the shadow of their pickup and watched their son’s game in Cairo, a short drive down Highway 11 from their home in Boelus.
A freight train rumbled a couple of hundred yards from center field, and volunteers sold soft drinks and popcorn at the concession stand. A foul tip landed with a clunk on a metal building behind the parking lot and two little boys with gloves raced after it.
Chase looked tan and sturdy, wearing No. 10 on his red jersey. His bangs were pasted with sweat to his forehead.
When he pitched in the first inning, Michelle couldn’t take her eyes off his arm. She always watches it, every game.
She watched him bring the ball to his chest as he started his windup, then as he cocked his arm back and followed through, releasing the ball from his right hand.
She didn’t track the ball to the plate to see if he threw a strike. Strikes and balls don’t matter to her. She wants her son to succeed, to help his team win.
But his arm is the beauty of his game.
Tears sometimes well up in his dad’s eyes watching Chase play.
Craig thinks about the field in his hometown of Boelus where he played baseball himself and where Chase’s grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather played.
Jensen Field is rimmed by 100-year-old cottonwoods, and it’s where Chase will play home games next season.
It’s where he will pitch from a mound where generations of Caspersens have stood with a ball in hand.
Earlier this month Chase, 15, looks back toward the parking lot as he and his DCB teammates take the field for a game against a team from Grand Island in Cairo, Nebraska.
At the game in Cairo, the field lights shined bright as the game ended. Chase walked up to his mom and dad, and they climbed into their pickup for the ride home.
Chase recapped the game, mostly highlighting plays by teammates.
Did you see that hit? Did you see that catch?
Craig and Michelle listened to the baseball talk and thought about the game and their boy, and how life could have been so different.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, firstname.lastname@example.org