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2 years ago by Phil Anastasia

Prosthetic leg doesn't deter Haddonfield football player Jason Garstkiewicz

When they gather in the huddle before the start of another series, the seniors on the Haddonfield High School football team who have played together for more than 10 years don't see anything special about the tall kid with the ready smile.

 

That's just Jason Garstkiewicz. He was there at the beginning. He had that little bump in the middle. And now he's here at the end, as the guys who joined forces as six- and seven-year-olds in youth football work to finish their final season with a flourish.

"To be honest, none of us even think of Jason as being different than anybody else," Haddonfield senior wide receiver Matt Burns said. "Other people see him sometimes and look at his leg and are like, 'Wow.'

 

"We never even consider it anymore."

Garstkiewicz likes it that way. He doesn't want to be known as "the kid with the artificial leg." He just wants to be known as the starting tight end and starting defensive lineman and emergency punter for an undefeated team that is ranked 14th in South Jersey in the Inquirer Top 25.

That might be the best thing about Garstkiewicz' story. He's not a novelty act. He's not a part-time player who overcame his handicap to stand to the sideline and cheer on his teammates - although he's great at that - and see occasional action.

He's a good player for a good team. And while that might not seem like much, it's everything to Garstkiewicz and his family.

"It's awesome," Gartskiewicz said. "It's all I ever wanted, especially senior year. It's what I dreamed about, especially when I got sick."

Gartskiewicz came home from basketball practice in December of his seventh-grade year with a "bump on his leg," according to his father, Gary.

"He's a kid who did nothing but play sports," Gary Garstkiewicz said. "We all get bumps on our legs playing sports, right?"

This bump was different. Eventually, it was determined the growth was cancerous. And after consultation with experts from Children's Hospital in Philadelphia as well as Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Mayo Clinic, it was determined that the best course of action was amputation of Garstkiewicz' right leg below the knee.

"It was a hard decision," Gary Garstkiewicz said of opting for amputation. "But it was the right decision. He's clear [of cancer]. He's down to one scan a year."

'Never gave up'

Jason Garstkiewicz said some of his first thoughts during that process were of his athletic career. He wanted to be able to play again with his friends.

He tried to stick with basketball and lacrosse, but the stress on his "good leg" was too much. Besides, he said, football was his "first love."

He didn't play in eighth grade as he recovered from surgery and adjusted to his prosthetic. He played sparingly as the 13th man on a 13-man freshmen team.

"I guess I was still a little scared," Garstkiewicz said. "But a kid got hurt, and I got in there, and I did OK. I built from there."

He played junior varsity with some success as a sophomore, suiting up for varsity games. But last season was frustrating, as an infection in his leg cost him a few games and sapped much of his strength.

"I remember we were going to play Paulsboro, and he couldn't play, and you could look on his face and see he was so sad," Burns said.

Said Haddonfield senior running back Justin Gallo, "He never gave up. He just wanted to be out there with his boys."

Garstkiewicz worked hard in the weight room to prepare for his senior season. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds. He lacks straight-line speed, but he's rangy and strong, has good hands and natural instincts.

"The thing about Jason is, he knows football," Gary Garstkiewicz said. "He understands the game."

He earned it

Haddonfield coach Frank DeLano said Garstkiewicz was among the team's most impressive players in preseason workouts.

"He won the starting tight end position," said DeLano, whose teams plays at Paulsboro on Saturday. "He won the starting D-line position. Not by default. He earned it. He's a major contributor to this team."

DeLano said Garstkiewicz is an "inspiration to everybody" not just others who deal with disabilities.

"His demeanor and his character got him through this," DeLano said.

DeLano said Gartskiewicz has a disarming sense of humor about his situation. The coach recalls an incident during a scrimmage on a hot summer afternoon when his starting tight end hopped off the field holding his prosthetic.

"Coach, I lost my leg," Garstkiewicz said.

"If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that one," DeLano said.

"You'd have a nickel," Garstkiewicz said.

Garstkiewicz said sometimes opposing coaches or players will approach him after games, offering praise and encouragement.

"It's very meaningful," Garstkiewicz said. "If I can help anybody, I would."

Garstkiewicz knows this is his last season of football. He wants to attend a "big school" in college and maybe serve as a manager for the football team.

As do many of his senior teammates, Garstkiewicz said he cherishes the practices and games, bus rides and locker-room scene.

And for him, there's nothing better than those moments when he's in the huddle with his buddies and he realizes these are the last days of a football friendship that a battle with cancer and the amputation of part of his leg couldn't touch.

"I never wanted to be seen as the kid with the artificial leg," Garstkiewicz said. "I just wanted to be out there like the rest of my friends, just playing football with everybody else."

 


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