As the final year of high school for seniors across the country is coming to a bizarre conclusion – virtual ceremonies and makeshift celebrations galore – Jack Traxler recalls the first time he felt disconnected from his classmates.
Traxler, set to graduate next week from Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., was diagnosed with a brain tumor five years ago. The multiple surgeries and many months of recovery that ensued often pulled him away from class and marked the beginning of incredible challenges ahead.
“I wasn’t really able to fully participate in my eighth-grade year,” said Traxler (pictured, above left, with his family), a one-time multisport athlete with golf among those he loved. “I feel like this is kind of the same type of situation, not being with my classmates.”
The discovery of his health problems started in seventh grade when Traxler had been deemed a Type 1 diabetic patient who would require an insulin pump. About six months later he began to experience severe headaches. Initially his endocrinologist believed they were migraines but when Traxler’s vision and balance started to suffer, it became apparent that something more serious was occuring.
He still remembers every detail from his first day visiting a neurologist in 2015. As he waited for the results from an MRI, a nurse came and said the doctor wanted to see him again.
“I looked at my mom and said, ‘I don’t think this is good,’ ” Traxler remembers. “That was right when everything went downhill.”
" ... we have all done everything to support him, but sometimes even as a parent you don’t know what to say.”
The tumor was removed, but the process did not go smoothly. He had a shunt – a device that relieves pressure on the brain caused by fluid accumulation – implanted, but it later failed. Another surgery came a few months later.
“He had many surgeries that first year, but the shunt failure really took the wind out of his sails,” said Traxler’s mother, Colleen. “In the first 13 years of his life, he had three challenges that some people don’t have in their entire lifetimes. My husband and I both come from large families and we have all done everything to support him, but sometimes even as a parent you don’t know what to say.”
One year into his new reality, the permanent physical limitations were harrowing. Traxler was left with double vision, paralysis on the right side of his face, impaired balance and a disheartening schedule of returning for regular MRIs so his progress could be monitored.
Perhaps the biggest blow to his spirit was that he no longer could realistically play the sports he loved deeply throughout his childhood. Traxler grew up a sports nut, hockey being his favorite. He had played since age 5 and had aspirations of competing in the Minnesota High School Hockey Championship, a wildly popular event in a state that adores the sport.
“My first question to the doctor before my surgery was when I could get back to playing hockey,” Traxler said. “And they said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll see.’ That was only at the first stage before things got worse. I’m still mad. I wasn’t prepared to not have hockey.”
But there was one sport Traxler still had an opportunity to play.
Since he was very young, he had tagged along with his parents and two older brothers to play golf, often on summer vacation in Brainerd, Minn., or for casual weekend outings closer to home. He remembers one time as a youngster when, after a nine-hole round, he suggested that maybe coming back for just two holes would be better next time. He still really wanted to be at the course, but the nine holes had left him exhausted as he tried to keep up with his brothers.
Just before entering ninth grade, Traxler finally had enough energy to try golf again. It was far more difficult than in the past – the lefty realized that tracking the ball was hard because he sees two golf balls in the air – but it became a healthy way for him to be active, fulfilling the competitive void.
“It’s the one sport that has always been there for me,” Traxler said. “And then when I made my high school team and didn’t get cut … that was a miracle.”
Traxler went on to play three years of golf at Cretin-Derham with his fourth and final season being canceled due to the pandemic. His perseverance and devotion to improving during his time on the team has been an inspiration to many, including his coach, Charlie Lallas.
“There were no spots guaranteed and he tried out just like everyone else to make the team,” Lallas said. “It was really cool to see. We have a putting competition every week at practice and at first, he would just kind of go up to putt, keep to himself and not say much. But as time went on, he would get involved with some of the friendly banter and come out of his shell. He became more vocal.
“His game has improved so much, but even more than that, he provided so much to the team. Other guys saw how much dedication and effort he put into it even with everything he deals with on a daily basis, so there was no excuse for them to not give 100 percent.”
One factor that has been greatly beneficial for Traxler has been the Youth On Course program, which provides youngsters around the country with unique opportunities to play for $5 or less at more than 1,200 participating courses. Many of the nicest courses in the Twin Cities area have become available to him and it has given him a chance to improve his game.
“I’ve really taken advantage of the membership,” Traxler said. “I got to play a bunch of courses I’ve never played before and then I found out that some of the ones I had been playing for a long time also offered the program.”
That program now represents something bigger than discounted rates. Last month, Traxler was awarded a Youth On Course academic scholarship to go toward the next chapter of his schooling; he’ll study engineering at Iowa State University.
“I’ll always be a Youth on Course scholar for 2020,” Traxler said. “I feel really grateful and honored. It’s great that I’m being recognized for my hard work and determination. Golf has been an important part of my life.”
If there is one thing that Traxler’s story can teach us during this uncertain time, it’s to keep perspective for all of the challenges ahead. He’s heartbroken that a traditional graduation won’t be taking place, but he knows the type of legacy he leaves with friends, teammates, coaches and anyone else who has met him along the way.
Colleen Traxler said it best when describing what Jack has taught her throughout the past five years:
“No matter what adversity he’s dealt with, he is always able to get up every day and pick himself up,” she said. “He’s making the most of himself.”
Top: Jack Traxler, left, with his family