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'What You Want in a College Athlete'

January 09, 2012

Story Amanda Hart, Dakota Wesleyan, NAIA Virtual Intern, Class of 2013

Normally, when we find ourselves facing "a bump in the road" it is something very menial, something that can probably be overcome in a matter of minutes or seconds. We consider it to be a bump in the road simply because it is a small obstacle that keeps us from doing what we want to do at that moment in time. But, this is how Jamestown (N.D.) cross-country runner Joseph "JJ" Koerber describes his recent battle with cancer. It's just a bump in the road; a setback.

The 23-year-old fifth-year senior decided it was time to go see a doctor in June 2011 to get a lump on his left testicle that had been bothering him for some time looked at. After the initial appointment, JJ was referred to a specialist in Fargo to be examined. Although it appeared to the doctors to only be a built-up calcium deposit, they drew blood to test tumor markers, just to see if there was anything out of the ordinary.

Upon leaving, the doctors informed JJ he would need surgery to remove the mass. It still appeared the lump was nothing but a calcium deposit. There was less than a three percent chance of it being cancerous. JJ elected to have the surgery closer to home in order to be with family during his recovery period.

On July 25, JJ awoke to a nurse in his hospital room. His first words- "Am I as cool as Lance Armstrong now?" The nurse did find a little humor in the question, but JJ and Lance now had more in common than he even knew. He was then informed that the doctors had to remove the testicle, meaning that it was, in fact, cancerous. Typical of JJ's personality, his first reaction was "I bet my mom is a mess in the waiting room right now."

JJ spent the next three weeks in his parents' basement in North Branch, Minn. Because of the doctors' restrictions, he was forced to sit around and watch television the entire time, not an easy task for a cross-country runner. Lucky for him, one of those weeks was Shark Week.

Once those three weeks came to an end, he returned to the University of Minnesota hospital for a cat-scan, to make sure the cancer didn't spread. To his relief, it hadn't. When he was finally able to return to Jamestown, JJ was frequently asked about the cancer and his surgery. People would ask him if he thought he got the short end of the stick. Why would such a great guy have to deal with something like this during his senior year? JJ gave them a pretty simple answer. "It's just a little bump in the road. Life will continue to throw them at you, you just have to overcome them and make the best of what you have to work with."

Returning as the top Jimmie cross-country runner this past fall, JJ had a very short period of time to train and get ready for the team's first meet. However, he felt it was pretty easy to transition back into things, especially with the support he was receiving from everyone on campus and within the Jamestown community. JJ is also quick to credit his teammates and coaches for his motivation to return. "I have great teammates. They were excited to get me back on the team and back to running with them every day."

Jamestown head cross-country coach Ed Crawford wasn't at all surprised with the speedy recovery. "That's JJ. You would have never known he was going through this. You and I, we hear cancer and it'd be a pretty big jolt. With him, he got it taken care of and has never really missed a beat. But that's the type of kid he is. He's not going to sit around and mope or complain, and now here he is back running really well."

Crawford also applauds JJ's leadership abilities and relationship with his teammates. "JJ is a team leader and a vocal guy. He has the respect of his teammates and that's not just because of what he's had to overcome, but because he does things the right way. He's a really good example, really, for what you want in a college athlete."

JJ finished this cross-country season as the top Jamestown runner across the board, running a career-best 26:44 and finishing 24th overall in his final race in a Jimmie uniform. Now, JJ is moving on with his life. Although he'll never forget his "rough summer", he graduated from Jamestown in December with a degree in criminal justice. However, JJ is enjoying every last moment of this final semester.

"I've always liked to take one day at a time and not look too far into the future. I appreciate each of those days more because I know that things could have been a lot worse for me. This just shows me to really appreciate what you have in life because you never know what's going to happen next. Nothing should hold you back."