October 23, 2009

Hope and heartbreak mark a high school senior’s season

Reese Gillund poses on Sept. 28 at Lawrence Park in Indianapolis while his teammates on the boys’ soccer team of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis practice together. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Reese Gillund poses on Sept. 28 at Lawrence Park in Indianapolis while his teammates on the boys’ soccer team of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis practice together. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The snapshots capture the high school senior in his last sports season.

In a pre-season photo, the picture focuses on the student-athlete smiling, and greeting his teammates and coaches before another practice that leaves him drained and sweating.

A photo taken before the first game of the season shows the youth putting on the team’s jersey, his face revealing a mixture of hope, nervousness and intensity for one last season that is just minutes from starting.

Another photo captures the player in the heat of a game, his heart and his love for the sport reflected in his eyes as he tries to make a play that requires a split-second reaction—all in front of a crowd and against an opponent that wants to win just as much.

And somewhere in that pile of pictures is the painful reminder of a moment that always comes too soon for the senior athlete—and even his parents.

Yet before that photo is viewed, there are a few others to consider, including this difficult-to-look-at snapshot that pictures Reece Gillund in the third game of the 2009 boys’ soccer season for Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.

It shows a moment that no high school athlete—especially a senior—wants to experience.

In that moment, Reece charges toward a rolling ball while a player on the other team also races toward it.

“He wasn’t going to slow down and neither was I,” Reece recalls. “He hit me in the right side of the face and the next thing I knew I was on the ground.”

In the collision, Reece suffered a fractured jaw. In the collision, all the dreams and hopes that Reece had for his senior season also seemed to be shattered. As he left the hospital with his jaw wired shut, he just hoped that he would be able to return to play before the season ended.

For anyone who knows Reece, the injury seemed even more painful because of the heartbreak that the 18-year-old youth has had to endure.

A year ago, Reece was diagnosed with a degenerative disease called Primary Schlerosing Colongitis, which affects the liver and the bile ducts. He had a surgery in February, followed by another one in August.

“Half my liver is already dead, the other side is holding strong,” says Reece, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “Later in my life, I’ll likely have to have a liver transplant.”

His mother, Pam Gillund, adds a detail that Reece didn’t share.

“The doctor is concerned about cancer,” she says. “It’s one of the fear factors.”

Then she shares a telling moment about Reece, the third of her four children with her husband, Kim.

“After he had surgery in February, we took him home,” she recalls. “We laid him on the sofa and his rosary fell out of his pocket. I know he’s drawing strength from his faith. He’s an altar server and a eucharistic minister. He’s very spiritual, and he has to be to get through all this. He’s just so strong. The doctors tell him to live each day and remain positive. God has given him a lot to deal with, and he’s dealt with it very well.”

The only time she has seen Reece angry through it all was when he suffered the broken jaw.

Even before the season started, Reece knew this would be his last one for playing a sport he has loved since he was in the first grade. He already had dreams for his future—heading to college, going to Europe some day, earning a degree in aeronautical technology, wanting to get his pilot’s license to fly planes.

But there were also his dreams for playing one last season of soccer in high school.

“When the team plays together, strings a few passes together and gets a goal, that’s always a great feeling,” he says. “So is winning. I love the finesse of soccer. It’s not a sport everyone can do. When you do things right, it looks so good.”

His ability made him a key player on his high school team.

“His skills have always been in the top tier,” says Mike DeChant, an assistant coach of the Cardinal Ritter boys’ soccer team. “He’s not a big kid, but he’s got a lot of heart and a lot of spirit. He always plays hard, he never complains and he’s unselfish as a teammate. Reece personifies everything you want in a player and a person. For him, it’s not what he can’t do. He chooses to do what he can.”

After he suffered the fractured jaw, Reece chose to continue to be there for his teammates, offering them encouragement and advice—even when it crushed him to sit on the bench in his team’s uniform and watch game after game of his senior season slip away.

“It’s a terrible feeling when you’ve been on the varsity for four years and you’ve been on the field,” he says. “It’s hard not to be able to help your teammates.”

As an outlet, he wrote music. He also dreamed of being able to return for the game on Senior Night at the end of the regular season. That dream came true after the wires and screws were removed from his jaw.

“It felt really good to get back out there,” he says. “It was a great feeling to be out there playing with all my friends. Just getting touches on the ball felt really good.”

Two games into the single-elimination high school state tournament, Ritter’s 2009 boys’ soccer season came to an abrupt end in a loss on Oct. 10 to Pike High School in Indianapolis. Reece’s high school career as a soccer player also ended.

A snapshot shows him walking off the field after that final game. A look of heartbreak marks his face. It’s the heartbreak that the vast majority of high school athletes feel after their last game—not just because they have lost the game, but more so because it suddenly hits them that they will never have that high school experience again.

“It was pretty sad stepping off the field for the last time,” Reece says. “It was heartbreaking knowing you weren’t going to play with these people again and knowing that your soccer career was over.”

A person who strives “to look forward to the good things that will happen in the future,” Reece allowed himself to look back one more time at a year that has challenged him in so many ways.

“It’s hard to get through stuff like that, going through it alone,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without my faith, my family and my friends. I don’t know what I would have done without them supporting me.” †

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