I don't know how many of you read this but it's quite touching (and sad at points).[url=http://www.cfl.ca/index.php?module=newser&func=display&nid=12893]http://www.cfl.ca/index.php?module=news ... &nid=12893[/url]
Disabled fan counts players as friends -- and those have been hard to find
By Vicki Hall,
EDMONTON - Karl Burkholder wears No. 1 for the Edmonton Eskimos. Accuracy isn't his strong point. When he throws the football, he's more likely to hit an innocent bystander in the head than a receiver in the hands.
Doesn't matter. In a season of loss for the Green and Gold, the Eskimos would unanimously select Karl as the most valuable player.
Some people may call Karl, 18, a diehard fan. The Eskimos call him one of their own.
"I feel crappy," says Karl, who has his own gold jersey with "Karl B" stitched on the back. "But I still love the Eskimos."
Terminal cancer won't stop Karl from showing up at practice to cheer on his team. Neither will a steady diet of morphine that causes him drift off to sleep in mid-sentence.
The doctors sent him home a few weeks back and assigned his case to the palliative-care team. Nothing more can be done for the testicular cancer that's ravaged his body. Chemotherapy didn't work. Neither did four separate cancer surgeries. Radiation was a last resort. That failed, too.
"It makes me feel sad knowing that other cancer patients succeed with the potent medication of chemo," Karl says. "It's hard to not to think negative just a bit, even though you want to stay positive."
Karl knows he's dying. He also knows the Eskimos' playoff streak of 34 years -- a record in North American professional sports -- is dead.
But he wants to support his team until the final second of the fourth quarter of the final game, because that's what true friends do.
"Karl has such determination -- such passion for life," says Edmonton tailback Ronald McClendon. "He comes to practice in the cold weather with a breathing tube in his nose. We know how sick he is, but it doesn't matter to Karl.
"He's true Eskimo in every sense of the word."
In return for his support, Karl has more than 50 new friends on his favourite CFL team. From quarterback Ricky Ray to linebacker Singor Mobley, every Eskimo knows Karl by name.
Their acceptance means so much to Karl, who talks more about the pain of rejection on the local playground in Castle Downs than the pain of cancer.
"I'm hated in my neighbourhood," Karl says, his head drooping down as he tries to stay awake during practice at Clarke Stadium. "Most people really don't like me. They don't accept my differences."
And Karl is different. He was born with Cowden's Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes rampant tumour growth throughout the body. To make matters worse, Karl is blind in one eye. He's also mentally and emotionally challenged.
"I have two different colour eyes -- one is brown and the other is green," he says. "And other people don't accept it. They also think I don't talk normal."
Karl speaks slowly with an accent that's all his own. But don't be fooled: He can tell you just about anything when it comes to weather, geography or sports -- especially the Eskimos and the Edmonton Oilers.
His mother, Diane, also suffers from Cowden's Syndrome. She was recently diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, although she never smoked. But she regards her health problems as secondary to her son's battle with the disease.
"Karl is just such a special boy," she says.
"If I had one wish, it would be that the up-and-coming generations of children treat everybody the same, no matter who they are or what they look like.
"Give people a chance, because everyone is the same inside."
From his perch in the stands at Clarke Stadium, Karl sounds like a play-by-play announcer as he describes his losing battle with cancer.
"I originally got diagnosed with testicular cancer when I was 171/2," he says. "Then my cancer moved to my lymph nodes by my kidneys. Then my cancer moved into my intestines. Then the cancer moved to my neck by my collarbone and made a pretty solid mark.
"I'm 18 1/2 now, and it's scary stuff. If you had cancer this severe, you'd be frightened out of your mind."
Karl's cancer diagnosis did little to convince the kids on the playground to back off. If anything, it made things worse for the young man who was home-schooled due to his constant hospital visits and learning difficulties.
"Kids can be really mean," Diane says. "Just this summer, they said, 'Don't play with Karl. He's got cancer. If you touch him, you'll die.' "
Karl lashed out the only way he knew how.
"I'm so hated," he says. "So I did something I probably shouldn't have done. I wrote on the sidewalk cement right where people were picking on me. I wrote, 'Edmonton sucks.' "
Understand: insulting Edmonton is treason to Karl. This is a young man who cries every time the Oilers or Eskimos lose.
But he had to do something to release his pent-up rage.
"I've tried to tell Karl about not drawing attention to himself," Diane says. "But, at times, he does. He'll prance instead of walk. Or he talks way too fast.
" Kids chase him around the park. He stops, thinking he has friends. Then he turns around and they're mean to him."
It's a game Karl can never win -- just like his battle with cancer.
Karl was crying for morphine last January when head coach Danny Maciocia and Ronald McClendon visited the Stollery Children's Hospital with the Grey Cup.
It took just one look at the Holy Grail of the Canadian Football League to cure Karl of his pain, if only temporarily.
"That was the biggest adrenaline shot," Diane says. "He didn't need the morphine or anything like that. It was just like, 'Wow.' He started kissing the cup and holding the cup."
Maciocia gave Karl a team picture and said, "Bet you can't name all the players.' "
He named every one.
"I was pretty impressed," Maciocia says. "Obviously, here's a guy who knows what he's talking about."
So Maciocia gave Karl a standing invitation to attend practice. And, one day, Maciocia decided to pay his new friend the ultimate compliment. The players huddled up and chanted Karl's name. With his arms in the air, he sprinted across the field and ran right into the heart of the Edmonton Eskimos.
It's a privilege reserved for very few.
"The only people entitled to be in that huddle are Eskimos," Maciocia said. " And, in my opinion, Karl's an Eskimo."
Never one to hold back, Karl let his teammates have it after their latest loss to Toronto -- although he had to stay inside the truck to keep warm because his immune system is failing.
That didn't stop the players from stopping by to say hello.
"You know, you guys broke my heart big time," Karl told slotback Derrell (Mookie) Mitchell.
"We know we did, man," Mitchell said, clutching Karl's hand.
"Were you guys thinking about me when you were eliminated?
"We sure were, Karl. We sure were."
Mitchell is a 10-year CFL veteran. Defensive end Adam Braidwood is a rookie, so Karl was much more understanding when the newcomer stopped by.
"I'm heartbroken you guys are eliminated," Karl told Braidwood. " But you guys are my favourite football team in the whole league, regardless.
"I support you guys, no matter what."
Of course he does. Isn't that what friends are for?
"Having Karl around puts everything in perspective," says wide receiver Ed Hervey.
"Maybe the streak wasn't that important. I mean, sure, we really want to win. But there's more to life than winning and losing football games, right?"