It certainly wasn’t a normal off-season for Fulton senior Trae VanZuiden.
Instead of messing around with friends, worrying about what colleges to look at or doing what teenagers do, Van Zuiden had something bigger on his mind: fighting cancer.
Trae VanZuiden wasn’t a football player until his sophomore year when he decided to put on the Steamer black and red and give it a try. He found a love for the game and quickly became an integral part of the Fulton line, partly thanks to his 6’4, 250 lb frame.
“Coming into high school, I didn’t start out playing football. But I went out my sophomore year and enjoyed it, came back junior year and was able to start,” VanZuiden recalled.
In mid-January of his junior year, after fighting about a month of chronic stomach pain, VanZuiden and his parents heard from his doctors at the University of Iowa the last thing they wanted to hear.
VanZuiden was diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma. He was stunned.
Even then, he had something on his mind. Was he going to find himself on the gridiron his senior year?
“Football was that motivating factor for me,” VanZuiden said. “I just wanted to get back and play with all my teammates.”
Chemotherapy started and life slowed down. It was a blur of doctor visits and drugs, with his active lifestyle stalled while his body fought itself.
“It was going to be my senior season, and I didn’t want to go through life knowing I missed out on something like this,” VanZuiden said. “What we have going here is pretty special. Getting back to my teammates, that’s what kept me going.”
Being a part of a team like that of the Fulton Steamers caused something else. It caused a small-town Illinois community to rally behind him. All over Fulton High School and the town you started to see signs for “Trae’s Team” or “#59strong” pop up, donned in the green colored ribbon that stands for lymphomas.
A GoFundMe account raised over $15,000 for his family’s medical expenses, too.
“It felt incredible,” VanZuiden said. “Fulton’s a town of like 3,500 people and I felt supported by every single person.”
Chemo continued through the winter and into the spring. In the meantime, the community support continued and VanZuiden continued to go back to football.
Head coach Patrick Lower was one of his first visitors out at the hospital, in fact. One of Lower’s sayings stuck in the back of VanZuiden’s head the entire time he received chemo and treatment.
“It was a big step back. One thing Coach Lower talks about is handling adversity,” VanZuiden said. “I just looked at it as part of the story – a part of the story that you need to get through to get to the end goal.”
There was no working out for VanZuiden in that time, and he could only run a little bit here and there when June hit. In July, he finally got his chemo port out, and two weeks later he was in the gym trying to get back into shape for football season the next month.
Chemo takes a toll on the body, but VanZuiden had goals.
“It was rough,” VanZuiden said. “I hadn’t done any lifting or conditioning for the better part of five months and it was a long journey back.”
No. 59 was able to run out with the Steamers, and has been a key part of their team all year.
VanZuiden is currently in the clear after a whirlwind six months, not on any medications and just scheduled for follow up scans every three months.
If you’re thinking his comeback seems to good to be true, you’re not alone. It was an incredible feat and really speaks to the strength and character of the quiet teenager.
But if you ask him, he goes back to the fact that his team made him stronger, which probably speaks to the type of atmosphere Fulton Football creates.
“From that I got that nothing is guaranteed and you have to work through every part of life,” VanZuiden said. “Being able to play for Coach Lower and Coach [Derek] Germann and Coach [Dave] Curley … that’s something I was wiling to work really hard for.”