Attempting to beat the odds

MU senior lineman faces the toughest challenge of his life
Thursday, August 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:23 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

At 236 pounds, Zach Kauflin looks the part of a defensive lineman. His biceps bulge from underneath his gray shirt. His 6-foot-2-inch frame reflects his dedication to athletics.

Underneath this powerful exterior, bandages and IV tubing affixed to his chest tell another story.

On June 18, Kauflin was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Nonetheless, Kauflin was on Faurot Field with the rest of the MU football team for the first week of practice. While he can’t participate in any physical contact exercises, he takes his turns at running and push-ups, standard drills that only now take a toll on his endurance.

Since he joined the team as a walk-on three years ago, Kauflin has been sidelined by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, a sprained ankle and a stress fracture in his foot. Each time, he’s been quick to get himself back into shape.

In this, his senior year, he is facing his greatest physical challenge yet.

He knows his disease is dangerous, but he would never let on that he’s worried. “I’m fine. It’s no big deal,” Kauflin says, quite assuredly.

“I can work out as my body feels like it, and will try and play at the end of football season,” he said. “I can still be on the sidelines during the games. I’ll just wear my jersey over my street clothes.”

Catching it early

What began as two small lumps on Kauflin’s neck quickly grew to golf-ball sized tumors on his lymph nodes. By the time doctors diagnosed lymphoma, it was a stage three condition. In addition to his neck tumors he had a tumor on his stomach.

“I was a little pissed off at first,” he said, “but then I just thought, well, what do I have to do to get over this?”

He began by researching the disease, and found that it is so rare that only 300 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. As one of the most

aggressive human cancers, it grows rapidly and its victim can become critically ill in a month to six weeks.

“Burkitt’s lymphoma is totally random, but it’s pretty highly curable once it goes into remission,” Kauflin said. “It’s one of the most aggressive cancers, but we caught it early so chemo should take care of it.”

He was able to catch it early in part to the stubborn urgings of his roommate, Brad Moore. Moore said he had been trying to get him to go to a doctor for awhile because of a persistent sore throat, but that Kauflin wouldn’t hear of it until he noticed the lumps.

“Zach’s got the kind of personality that things don’t bother him, like he says he doesn’t get colds even if he has a runny nose,” Moore said. “He has the idea that things won’t hurt him, and I think that will help him get through this better,”

Kauflin has a schedule of in- and out-patient chemotherapy treatments that should end on Oct. 23, assuming all goes well.

“Chemo sucks, but the drugs don’t affect me too much now,” Kauflin said. “The treatments are six days of being hooked up to poles with multiple drugs hanging from the IV.”

Thus far, Kauflin’s reactions to the treatments have been encouraging. His appetite has not decreased, and though he admits to tiring more easily and being “a little lethargic lately,” he still finds the energy to exercise.

At a late-night poker party in Columbia last month, a slightly sluggish Kauflin joked about beginning to shed little bits of hair from his arms and legs. Wearing a green baseball cap, it was hardly noticeable that he had recently shaved his jet black hair.

“I went ahead and left my sideburns because when I’m wearing a hat you can hardly tell the rest of my hair is gone,” he said. “I just don’t want to lose my goatee — I’ll look like a 12-year-old.”

Two weeks later, his sideburns, goatee and chest hair were gone.

Whatever it takes

”When Zach was in first grade, his brother’s high school football coach pulled him out of the stands and asked him to be the ballboy,” said his mother, Pam Kauflin, of Farmington. “He got to ride with the team and was so serious about learning the ins and the outs of the game. I guess I would say he’s been doing football since first grade.”

With a brother that was 7 years older, Pam Kauflin said her younger son quickly learned to be tough and act his brother’s age so he could play with him. Following his brother around at high school games, Kauflin caught on to the rules and eventually joined the team. He became a four-year letter winner and three-year starter for the Farmington Black Knights.

In 2001, Kauflin walked onto the Missouri football team. After redshirting his freshman year, he spent his sophomore and junior seasons working up through the ranks, eventually earning his own jersey number and establishing himself as a strong member of the team. The 2004 season marks his third year of eligibility.

“All of the coaches I’ve talked with have been really supportive and understanding,” Kauflin said. “I can’t practice hard with the team while I’m doing chemo, but they are going to let me afterwards.”

Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said Kauflin has always been a hard worker.

“I remember his first day of camp. He tore his knee, but he wouldn’t go to the trainer,” Kuligowski said. “He finished running all of the drills, and then went to get it checked out only to find that he needed knee surgery.”

Rex Sharp, MU’s director of sports medicine, said that while Kauflin has sustained “two fairly significant athletic injuries” – the torn ACL his freshman year and the stress fracture in his foot last summer before camp — he approached the latest setback the same as the others.

“He wanted to go get this. That’s just his nature,” Sharp said. “He had a schedule of his treatments right off and told me when he was going to fit in training, and he’s been sticking to that. He is very much a part of our team and our group and I really hope that he’ll be back after his treatments.”

Sharp said that about the week before Memorial Day, Kauflin came in to see him about the lumps on his neck and they immediately went to see a doctor. Within three days they were running tests.

“In my heart I know that the swiftness of all of this is because of the football team,” Pam Kauflin said. “If he were at home, it would have taken longer for him to see doctors, and because we found this early the chemo seems to be doing its job.”

She said that people from the football department, including Sharp and head coach Gary Pinkel, have kept in contact with her family, frequently sending notes and calling.

Even though Kauflin hasn’t had a minute of playing time, he doesn’t complain about the long hours and intense workouts of the past three years.

“I really like the kid,” Kuligowski said. “He’s a hard worker and an upbeat guy on and off the field, and I know he’ll do whatever it takes to get through this.”

An eye on the future

As an honors student, Kauflin has maintained an impressive 3.51 GPA despite a rigorous sports schedule and demanding major. With only a few classes left to finish his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a minor in business, Kauflin is still exploring his career options.

“Before all of this happened, I was thinking pharmaceutical sales,” he said. “Now, I’ve been around that stuff too much and I don’t want to deal with it any more. I’m thinking about patent law now.”

Kauflin plans on extending his graduation date, from spring of 2005 until winter of 2005, not only to give him more time to decide on a graduate school and career path, but also to be available for his extra year of eligibility on the team.

Despite periodic trips home for chemotherapy treatments, Kauflin plans to keep his full course load in the fall, which includes physics and quantitative analysis.

“I’ve already talked with my teachers, and they are all working with me so that I won’t fall behind early,” Kauflin said. “I’ll only miss about three weeks of class, but I don’t want that to set me back.”

Part of this arranging means scheduling his six-day chemotherapy treatments for a Tuesday through Sunday rotation so that he can drive back to Columbia in time for a lab class on Monday morning.

With the extra study time during his hospital visits, Kauflin is confident that he will be able to stay on top of his grades, and, with his health restored and strength returning, that he’ll be on top of his game too.

“I know how I am and my work ethic and I know what I have to do,” Kauflin said. “I’m not worried about getting through this.”

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