MIDDLEBURY — The stocking cap on a small frame stood out among the dozens of fully-padded Notre Dame football players.
Wedged between 6-foot-4 Daniel Smith and 6-3 John Goodman, 14-year-old Sam Grewe swayed back and forth during the alma mater following Notre Dame’s Senior Day win over Wake Forest. Sam didn’t know the words, but he watched and listened with an ear-to-ear grin.
It had been a rough week for Sam. The chemo left him sick to his stomach, and he hadn’t eaten in five days. He threw up Saturday morning, right as the Grewes got to their pre-game tailgate.
But he wasn’t going to miss this moment for the world.
Later, in the locker room, head coach Brian Kelly awarded the game ball to Notre Dame’s four captains. The captains called Sam up to the front and asked him to lead the cheer.
Sam stood on a chair, a tall order for a boy with a prosthetic right leg, in front of the entire team. But Sam felt safe.
He had Kelly and Manti Te’o by his side.
A TEARFUL CHRISTMAS
It started with a sharp pain in his right knee during the basketball season, initially dismissed by parents Randy and Michelle Grewe as typical growing pains.
Sam, then 13, was the leading scorer and rebounder on Northridge Middle School’s seventh grade basketball team. He had just finished the football season, where he was a cornerback, punter, kicker and top receiver.
The knee pain didn’t subside, and just days before Christmas last year, Sam was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his right knee.
“There were so many decisions to make in the beginning, you kind of go autopilot,” Michelle Grewe said. “You just get through the day, through the day, through the day.”
Sam elected to undergo rotationplasty — a surgery that removes part of the limb, while the remaining portion is rotated and reattached. Sam wanted to return to sports and avoid becoming — in his words — a “fat, lazy dad” some day.
“He could have gotten surgery where they put a metal knee in and save the leg but then he wouldn’t be able to do any sports,” Michelle Grewe said. “Climbing hills or going in the ocean, the waves could even break it.”
While Sam prepared to face 21 rounds of chemotherapy and 120 nights in the hospital, the Middlebury community reaction was swift and powerful.
Days before his official diagnosis, Michelle Grewe and her sister created a Facebook page to keep friends and family up to date on Sam’s journey. Nearly a year later, “Sam Grewe Updates” has more than 1,660 followers.
Fundraisers and dinners and letters from well-wishers rolled in. Randy and Michelle began seeing “Sam Strong” T-shirts and silicon bands in the grocery store and at Northridge football games.
While Randy and Michelle spent their nights with Sam in the hospital, their 16-year-old daughter, Audrey, was at the mercy of others for transportation.
“(Sam) and Audrey have been surrounded by examples of giving from the community,” Michelle said. “Whether financial or it’s food or it’s cards or it’s leading a fundraiser, a whole spectrum of things. They’ve had that role model to them.”
MAKING SAM ‘PART OF THE FAMILY’
Forty miles west of Middlebury, Brian Kelly had caught wind of Sam’s story.
As the head coach of Cincinnati in 2009, Kelly’s Bearcats had “adopted” Mitch Stone, a local pediatric cancer patient. Kelly said he wanted his team to give Mitch strength during his battle with cancer.
Now in his third year at Notre Dame, Kelly wanted to bring the program to the Irish, and Sam Grewe caught his eye.
“Sam’s story is a unique story,” Kelly said. “Here’s an athlete who played sports and, because of cancer, was going to lose his leg and then the way that the prosthesis was put together became more of an interesting situation. He wants to be an athlete and he wants to be around athletes.”
Kelly was no stranger to the physical and emotional toll cancer takes on a patient. His wife, Paqui, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. That shared experience gave Kelly a unique insight to Sam’s situation.
“How you feel about cancer and how you deal with it are so individual based on the circumstances,” Kelly said. “But it gave me great insight to what he needed, and what I thought he could provide for our players too, a young man who has so much in front of him and I think that’s what kind of got me to want to push to make Sam part of the family.”
NOTRE DAME’S ‘KAIKAINA’
Notre Dame director of player development Ernest Jones approached Randy and Michelle Grewe about adopting Sam in early April. Randy Grewe, a Purdue graduate who had “brainwashed” his children into Boilermaker fandom, was hesitant at first, but he and his wife decided to see what Notre Dame had in mind.
The program moved quickly, setting up an adoption ceremony with Sam and his family a week and a half later.
When the Grewes walked down the steps of the Isban Auditorium for the first time, the entire Notre Dame football team, dressed in white “Grewe Crew” T-shirts, welcomed them with a standing ovation.
After Kelly welcomed the family, each player introduced himself and passed along words of encouragement to Sam.
Defensive lineman Kona Schwenke told Sam that he was his new “kaikaina,” Hawaiian for “little brother.” Other players stood up and talked about how cancer had personally touched their lives. Sam went home armed with Notre Dame hats and gloves and jackets, a team-autographed “Play Like a Champion Today” sign and a Notre Dame helmet.
The next day, the Grewes drove to Indianapolis. The day after that, Sam was in surgery.
“It made a difference,” Michelle Grewe said of the ceremony. “We were very scared about the surgery and to have that happen Monday night and have the family all together, it definitely kept our mind off of what was happening.”
WIT AND OPTIMISM
Randy Grewe wasn’t sure what to say to his son after surgery. He played out different scenarios in his head, expecting to walk into the room and break down in tears.
When he visited his son after the surgery was over, Sam raised a closed fist and quipped, “Amputee’s thumbs up.”
Randy Grewe turned to his wife on the way out and said, “I can’t believe how easy that was.”
Throughout his 100-plus nights in the hospital, nurses have told the Grewes that Sam is the most positive teenage boy they’ve ever treated. Sam comes off as quiet and reserved at first, but the medical staff at Memorial Hospital soon learned that the 14-year-old was bursting with wit and a positive attitude.
Sam’s attitude caught the attention of several Notre Dame players, too, and he grew close with walk-on Grant Patton, John Goodman, Robby Toma, Carlo Calabrese and Braxston Cave over the course of the season.
The Grewes were welcomed to the Caves’ weekly dinners, especially after Randy Grewe, owner of Old Hoosier Meats, donated slabs of ribs. After each home game, Sam hangs out with the team at their post-game tailgate.
“He definitely reminds me of myself when I was young,” Goodman said. “He plays the same exact way. He does the same exact thing. He has that dream again to get back out there on the field, and I am completely with him on that. I pray and I hope that can happen.”
Patton and Sam became especially close, their relationship blossoming after Patton visited Sam at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis around Easter. Patton brought Sam two boxes of hot wings. Sam, who hadn’t eaten in three days, happily wolfed them down.
While Patton hoped to serve as a mentor to Sam, the walk-on defensive end found Sam inspiring him in return.
“On the scout team, I get banged up and beat up a lot of days,” Patton said. “There’s moments when a lot of stuff hurts but it doesn’t take long thinking of Sam to realize I can just lace up my cleats and run on the field. It puts a lot of the little aches and bumps in perspective.”
READY TO RETURN TO NORMAL
Over the course of the season, Sam could be seen roaming the rows of Notre Dame players during pre-game stretches. During the games, he watches from the sideline, rubbing elbows with the likes of Vince Vaughn, Hines Ward, Jon Bon Jovi and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.
An entire wall of the Grewes’ basement is devoted to Sam’s pictures with famous actors and athletes. The autographed “Play Like a Champion” sign greets visitors near the front door. Sam’s bedroom features a collage of pictures from Senior Day hanging over his own sports trophies.
A few weeks ago, Paqui Kelly called the Grewes to check on Sam.
“She said, ‘Brian is not very good with dates, but the date (I) finished my last round of chemo. ... That was one of the most important dates to him,’” Michelle Grewe recalled.
If all goes as planned, Sam will finish his last four rounds of chemotherapy by February. He hopes to be well enough to try out for the football team at Northridge High School by the fall. Notre Dame hopes to keep Sam on board for years to come.
“We’re ready to get to normal,” Michelle Grewe said.