ABBOTSFORD — The first thing John Kasper noticed was the scar.
“When I woke up, it was the full length of my thigh,” he says.
If he had been in any shape at that moment to count, he would have tallied 35 staples, all serving as a vast suture for the incision surgeons needed to make to remove a cancerous tumour from the upper region of his left leg.
Just 80 days prior, when an official diagnosis confirmed the nature of the lump he had discovered in the upper part of left leg, Kasper was a rising star within the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program, a soccer player so talented that had he not been stricken by cancer, would very likely have been getting ready to help Canada attempt to qualify for the 2015 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
Yet on that day, Aug. 21, 2014 to be precise, he was a 15-year-old, Grade 10 student at Langley’s Walnut Grove Secondary trying to coming to grips with the fact that he would likely never play again.
“When they put me under, they told me the scar would be about six-or-seven centimetres, so that was a shock,” admits Kasper. “But the tumour turned out to be bigger than they thought, and because it was cancerous, they needed to take a perimetre of healthy tissue out. I had a major nerve running over the tumour that they couldn’t save.”
As a result, Kasper lost five per cent of his left quadriceps, as well as all feeling in half of his thigh.
“I was thinking that I couldn’t play anymore, I was told I wouldn’t play anymore,” Kasper remembers. “I thought about packing my bags, that I couldn’t do it. Nobody can stay strong the whole time. But I just kept telling myself that I could do this, and that I would get back.”
Fraser Valley Cascades head coach Tom Lowndes watches his new recruit, one he calls “A face for the future of the program.”
He is, of course, talking about John Kasper, who over the three-and-a-half cancer-free years following his surgery has indeed got right back on his horse.
“In the back of your mind you always kind of wondered if a player can get back to where they were after adversity,” begins Lowndes, who came to UFV as an assistant back in 2013 when Kasper was just beginning to make a splash as a member of the Canadian Under-15 team.
“This is pretty un-biased,” Lowndes continues before pausing. “You wouldn’t know. If you didn’t know his story. If you didn’t know that he was out for such a prolonged period, you wouldn’t know that anything happened.”
That’s a huge thumbs up from Lowndes, whose successful recruitment of Kasper has given the Cascades its first-ever Whitecaps residency program signing.
But it’s also a statement of just how far the 6-foot-2 central defender has come over a journey in which he not only re-built his entire game, but literally had to learn to walk all over again.
Upon initial diagnosis, he put his left leg through five straight weeks of radiation, five days a week at VGH.
“Every day at 7 a.m.,” said Kasper whose parents would drive him in from Langley each morning. “Every 10 minutes under that beam was equivalent to a full day under the sun without any sunscreen. My entire upper thigh was dark brown, crusty, just nasty.”
For two months after the surgery, Kasper struggled just to get out of bed and bend his left knee.
Amazingly, by November of his Grade 11 year, just three months after surgery, he was back at training with the Caps.
Unfortunately, as he compensated for the trauma in his left leg, Kasper wound up injuring his right knee.
“I was putting too much pressure on my other knee and in my push to stay healthy, I tore the meniscus on both sides of my right knee.”
Two more surgeries and subsequent rehabilitation kept him off the field for most of his Grade 12 (2015-16) season.
Kasper thus elected to stay with the Whitecaps this season for his so-called gap year, finally finding consistent health and getting, as he says, as close as he’s been to his former self.
“I try not to compare me to before my two leg injuries,” he begins, his tone reflecting how tough that struggle still is. “I know I used to be a better player before my surgeries. After the first one, I had to learn to walk again, learn how to kick a ball again.
“Right now it’s the little details, the movements I used to be able to make, that I have to work on. But I am happy with my game right now.”
CARVING HIS OWN PATH
Look at his family’s sporting history, and it’s actually somewhat surprising that John Kasper’s earliest memories are of kicking a soccer ball around at age three.
His dad Dave Kasper, was a third-round pick in the 1982 NHL entry draft by the then-Colorado Rockies, who were set to begin life as the New Jersey Devils the next season.
His uncle is Steve Kasper, the former Selke Trophy-winner who spent the first nine of his 13 NHL seasons with the Boston Bruins, later serving as their head coach.
“I played roller hockey for one year and I scored a goal… on my own net,” deadpanned Kasper. “But I have an older sister (Anna) and an older brother (Graham) and they both played soccer. I went to their games, and I wanted to be just like them.”
Kasper could never have ever imagined the adversity he would face during some of the most pivotal years of youth soccer development.
Yet amazing perseverance has not only brought his game back, but given him an enriched perspective.
Lowndes appreciates the level of talent he is bringing into the team, but even more so, the level of character he will be able to embed into the very culture of the program.
“The kid is a warrior,” says Lowndes. “When you go through something that life-changing you get to see the bigger picture. Life experiences just make you smarter. You see and understand things more, the way you might not if you were always healthy and never having to stand on the sidelines.”
There was just one thought on the day Kasper got his diagnosis.
“The biggest goal I set for myself was to live,” Kasper remembers. “I just said ‘I am going to live.’ Soccer became secondary to my health.”
Yet the sport gave him his portal to the daily act of dreaming big and the daily act of working hard.
“The Whitecaps really took care of me, they gave me the best physio treatment in Canada so I was just blessed there,” begins Kasper who is contemplating a future in policing when his soccer days are over.
“My dad just told me to carve my own path, and I had so many people by my side every day with support,” Kasper adds. “It was so amazing.”
And those staples?
Turns out he’s kept them as a reminder of his recovery.
“There’s actually 36 of them, not 35,” he reports.
As he prepares to begin his university career this fall, it’s fitting in a symbolic way to think of Kasper as that one extra staple, as the glue-guy who is ready to stitch his new team even closer together.
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