[Photo courtesy of St. John’s. Credit to Alexus Jungles]
Andrew Steffenson has a simple message for those who might be dealing with difficult health issues: “Don’t let the battle bring you down.”
The sophomore and backup punter/kicker at St. John’s has certainly battled. Starting around the third or fourth grade severe bouts of vomiting, mostly triggered by excitable emotions such as looking forward to a holiday or a family vacation, plagued the St. Louis native.
“When I got home from school in the evenings I would just start vomiting,” Steffenson recalled. “I would be vomiting throughout the evening, finally get tired and go to sleep. When I would get up the next morning everything would be fine.”
Physicians determined Steffenson was suffering from abdominal migraines, something that affects roughly two percent of all children. The condition was something he was expected grow out of, which he ultimately did.
While that was good news, something unrelated to the abdominal migraines triggered concern. Scans performed in an attempt to discover what was bothering Steffenson revealed a lesion on his brain. It was a situation that required monitoring and one that a few years later reared its ugly head in the form of a growth.
“When they first discovered the lesion we were not quite sure what it was, so we just kept doing routine brain scans,” he said. “During the summer between seventh and eighth grade a scan finally showed that there was some kind of growth, which is why we decided to perform a biopsy on the brain.”
The biopsy revealed a low-grade cancerous brain tumor, which meant surgery. His physicians felt good about having gotten every bit of the tumor and Steffenson fared very well in his recovery as he was out of the hospital within two days and back to school shortly thereafter. However, the positive feelings did not last too long.
“After the first surgery they pretty much thought we had gotten it,” said Steffenson. “But they later saw something and were not sure if it was scar tissue or a regrowth of the tumor.”
Unfortunately, it was the latter and another round of surgery was scheduled. By this time Steffenson was a junior year at De Smet Jesuit in St. Louis, Mo. Much like the feeling following the first procedure, all signs were positive the second time around and he was home in three days.
With everything going well it would soon be time to think about where he wanted to attend college. Minnesota was familiar territory as Steffenson has relatives from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and it was also where his family ventured on summer vacations. He first found out about St. John’s during his sophomore year when a college fair was held at his high school.
“During the summer before senior year we came up for a visit and I fell in love with the campus,” said the global business leadership major, who would like a career in the front office of professional sports team or as a broadcaster. “The location and the environment here really appealed to me. I returned in November of my senior year for a campus visit and that really helped me decide that this is where I wanted to be.”
Steffenson, though, could not get through his freshman year at St. John’s without yet another scan revealing a problem. A scan performed prior to leaving home for St. John’s concerned physicians because they once again saw something they did not like: more growth.
Instead of opting for a third surgery Steffenson endured a six-week series of radiation treatments. This took place over the school’s winter break to minimize the amount of lost class time. Though fatigue and other side effects set in, the growth was reduced and more than a year later he is doing very well.
“Since then I have felt great and everything has been going well,” said Steffenson, who must have follow-up scans every three months with the hope of soon expanding the window to every six months.
It was great for him to get back on the football field last season and with a team that is a perennial powerhouse. The Johnnies are the winningest (.710) program in Division III history and have claimed 16 of the last 28 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. When former coach and 2006 College Football Hall of Fame inductee John Gagliardi retired following the 2012 season he did so with more wins (489) than any coach in NCAA history.
Gary Fasching, who served as an assistant to Gagliardi for 17 years before taking over the program prior to the 2013 seasons, understands how much it means for Steffenson to be with the team.
“Being around the guys and feeling a part of the team has been really important for him and his ability to overcome some of the obstacles that he has had in his life,” he said. “I think it is a great lesson for all of our guys. Sometimes you are dealt things that you don’t expect and you have to make the best of it. I told Andrew that he is a great example of remaining positive and never giving up.”
Steffenson, who will have an opportunity to compete for the starting punter’s job in 2017, noted how his love of the game and the camaraderie among the Johnnies played no small part in his ability to keep his head up and battle.
“It meant a lot to me to get back on the football field and to be with my teammates,” he said. “They are a great group of people to be around and I also love playing football. Being able to fight through the cancer and get back with the team and still be able to pretty much do what I want on the field has been great.”