Athens High School junior Grant Vande Kerkhoff helps out at varsity football practice the afternoon of Oct. 2.

Athens High School junior Grant Vande Kerkhoff helps out at varsity football practice the afternoon of Oct. 2.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Sidelined Athens football player stays in the game

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published October 16, 2019


TROY — Athens High School junior Grant Vande Kerkhoff has played sports since he was 5 years old.

Although he’s sidelined from playing football this season, he’s on the field for every practice as “starting ball boy,” determined to do whatever it takes to help his team.

“I was so excited to play this year. I expected to do well this year,” he said.

In April, during junior varsity baseball practice, the 160-pound, 6-foot-1 junior felt a sharp pain in his chest while running across the baseball field.

He said he thought it was the flu, or maybe from not stretching out first and running onto the field right after driver’s education class. His doctor ordered an X-ray.

His left lung had collapsed.

The diagnosis was spontaneous pneumothorax, often found in tall, thin teenage boys. It causes tiny blebs, or blisters, to randomly develop on the lungs. When the blebs rupture, the coinciding air leak and pressure cause the lungs to collapse.

His parents, Frank and Betsy Vande Kerkhoff, took him to Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, for surgery.

Beaumont pediatric surgeon Dr. Begum Akay performed surgery that required chest tube placement to remove the excess air in the chest cavity to allow Grant’s lungs to reinflate.

“The whole purpose of doing surgery is to let him live his life,” Akay said in a press release. “We need him to recover first, but after that, I do not anticipate him having any restrictions. We don’t want him to not do things because he’s afraid it will happen again. I totally anticipate him having a normal and fulfilling sports experience.

“We don’t really know if sports or activity causes the blisters to rupture,” Akay explained. “When it happens, a lot of my patients are just sitting on the sofa, watching TV.”

Grant, who plays wide receiver for Athens, felt the same pain during the team’s first football game in August. His parents rushed him to the hospital, and he had the same operation.

According to Akay, sometimes the problem recurs and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no way of knowing if or when.

Grant’s mother said she is happy to know that others who share Grant’s diagnosis have gone on to enjoy successful careers in sports and the military.

“We know Grant wants to play,” she said in a press release. “Our goal is to support him in any way we can.”

“He is here every (day) ... he is up to it,” said Brian Baines, the athletic trainer for Athens High School. “It’s a plus — his determination.

“He does not have to be here every day,” Baines said. “He chooses to be.”


Staying the distance
Baines praised Grant’s level of commitment, determination and heart.

“My philosophy is that I’d rather be playing sports, doing what you love, than sitting on a couch and have this happen to me,” Grant said. He plans to pursue playing baseball or football in college.

Baines said that the athletic training program at Athens, through Beaumont, will ensure that Grant gets in proper condition and has the equipment needed to protect him from whatever sport he’s playing. Baines praised the Troy School District and parent boosters for ensuring that the budget is sufficient to maintain a training room “that rivals college.”

For now, the only exercise Grant is cleared for is jogging until he gets tired.

“He is not supposed to tax his lungs at this point,” Baines said.

Grant said on Oct. 2 that he had another three weeks of recuperating before he would be cleared to resume his normal activities, such as contact sports. He plans to resume playing basketball through the city of Troy youth program next month and to start baseball practice after the Christmas break.

His advice for sidelined athletes is, “Don’t take it too personally.”

He said helping the team as a ball boy and with coaching is a “way to mentally get ready for the next season and help out the team. Players sometimes don’t listen to coaches, but they will listen to people their own age.”

His thoughts center on what to do to make the team better and to speed up practice, whether that’s grabbing footballs or passing out water.

“Some of them (injured kids) have the demeanor that it’s beneath them to be a water boy,” Baines said. “It’s not beneath anybody. It’s helping the team.”

“Grant has the desire and heart to continue and stay fresh and eager to do things. Seeing him every day, what he’s doing, is refreshing and, disappointingly, is not the norm,” Baines said.

Grant said he takes inspiration from a U.S. Army officer who spoke at his school.

“He said, ‘Humble yourself first, and they will listen to you. Let yourself be told what to do before you can be a leader.’”