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Two friends, cancer-survivors and golfers, have fun with Highlands teammates, aiming for championship

By Marc Hardin
NKyTribune contributor

On an otherwise normal summer day in 2007, Luke Muller became sick with what his parents at first thought was a chest cold or maybe an allergy. That night they noticed a change in his breathing. When his condition failed to improve, he was taken to a doctor near their Fort Thomas home. Tests revealed the worst possible news. Four-year-old Luke had a tumor that was pressing against his trachea, affecting the way he inhaled and exhaled.

The Highlands boys’ golf team (left to right): Steven Grimme, Luke Muller, Brady Walz, Ryan Leigh, Justin Gabbard. (Photo provided by Highlands)

He was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare type of fast-growing non-Hodgkin lymphoma that mainly affects people under 35. He was hospitalized and underwent a chemotherapy regimen lasting two years. For another three years, he endured regular body scans and blood work and lived with a crushing anxiety that the cancer might return.

Once a year for the rest of his life Muller has to go back to the hospital for a thorough check-up to ensure that he’s in remission.

Today, he’s a healthy 15-year-old sophomore playing for the Highlands High School boys’ golf team and he’s one of the top players on the Bluebirds.

“Everything’s fine,” Muller said. “I’m having fun with my teammates.”

Brady Walz in the hospital recovering from cancer, with former Highlands star athlete Patrick Towles.(Photo provided by the Walz family)

Things could have been much different. He traces his interest in the sport back to the days shortly after being released from the hospital when his father would have him tag along while playing golf at Highland Country Club, just to get their minds off the ordeal. Before that, golf was merely one of many things that interested Muller while growing up in an athletic family where both parents played organized sports.

“One of my favorite things now is playing golf with my Dad,” Muller said. “We play all the time.”

Much to the delight of his family.

“We don’t like to use the phrase ‘beat cancer.’ Every day is a blessing,” John Muller said. “As his parents, it never leaves your mind. We can’t stress enough the idea of awareness with your child and the kind of care we got from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the incredible support we’ve received from the community.”

Brady Walz

In the spring of 2014 with a month to go in his eighth-grade year, Fort Thomas resident Brady Walz was brushing his teeth before school when his gums started bleeding. He had perfectly healthy teeth. He’d been complaining of lingering fatigue, especially after workouts with the Highlands freshman football team. His school work wasn’t getting done, which was unusual, and he lost his appetite.

Luke Muller at home with his golf club while recovering from cancer as a child. (Photo provided by the Muller family)

He had a scheduled doctor’s appointment moved up to that day. That night, he was in the hospital. He was diagnosed with pre-B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which makes children more likely to get infections because they don’t have the protection that B cells provide.

“It was the worst day. It all happened so fast and I was in shock,” he said. “I don’t remember blinking that night. I couldn’t fall asleep until they gave me something.”

For the next three years, Walz went through intensive treatment including chemotherapy and a steroid regimen, all of which ended about one year ago. He tried returning to the football team but suffered injuries after his body had been temporarily weakened by treatment. It was a big loss but he quit football and took up another sporting passion.

A healthy 18-year-old senior, he’s Muller’s teammate on the Highlands golf team.

“It’s a special season at Highlands because of the results but it’s amazing the odds these two kids beat. They’re incredible,” coach Bert Richey said. “Both of them played in the conference tournament and helped us win. And these two don’t get real upset when things don’t go their way on the course. I think at the end of the day, to them, it’s just a game.”

Brady Walz with his golf bag. (Photo provided by the Walz family)

Aiming for a championship

With a roster full of fighters, Highlands has fashioned a season of firsts by winning a program-record five tournaments among eight top-four finishes including the Northern Kentucky Athletic Conference Division II championship for the first time in 12 years. The Bluebirds go for their first regional crown in 11 years today at the Eighth Region tournament at A.J. Jolly.

They finished second last year and advanced to the state tournament.

The Bluebirds’ goal is returning to state as regional champs and making the second-day cut for the first time. Their top player is sophomore Justin Gabbard, a multi-medalist capable of shooting in the low-to-mid 70s. Muller, coming off a successful summer junior tour, is No. 2 with a tournament-best 76. Walz, coach Richey’s nephew, is in the top six with a personal-best 80.

“It’s a blessing just to be able to play sports so it’s an awesome feeling being on the team,” Luke Muller said. “Brady and I’ve become friends. We appreciate what each other’s gone through after being diagnosed. It’s pretty cool. It’s unique to have two guys like that on the same team. We don’t talk much about it so it’s a quiet appreciation for each other.”

Luke Muller finishing his swing. (Photo provided by the Muller family)

Walz agrees with Muller, whom he views as a kindred spirit. He’s also fairly certain that if cancer had not intervened, neither would be playing golf and they may not have become close friends enjoying a historic high school golf season together.

“If I didn’t have cancer, I would not be playing golf,” Walz said.

He’d be playing football. It counts as one of many surprising developments in the aftermath of battling such a dreadful disease.

“Luke and I are practice partners and we’ll always be friends,” Walz said.

“We have a common respect for each other that not many people have. I think we inspire each other and it puts everything into perspective. When you fight for your life, you don’t worry as much as other people about things like a bad golf shot, which I think gives us a bit of an advantage when we play.”

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  1. Thomas Kearns says:

    Great story Marc!!! Two wonderful kids!

  2. Beth Otto says:

    What inspirations these kids are. Wonderful article

  3. Jan Desmond says:

    Thanks for the article.

  4. Erin Clark says:

    What a great article!! Marc Hardin has always been a wonderful story teller!!

Reply to Jan Desmond Cancel Reply