MISSOULA — Shann Schillinger stood in the south end zone coaching his safeties as the sun’s rays shone down upon Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Friday morning.
Even with the excitement surrounding the fourth day of practice, there was no hiding that Friday was going to be a tough day for the Baker native.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Schillinger said. “That’s the only way you can put it.”
Schillinger posted a heartfelt message on Twitter mere minutes before taking the field to honor Baker’s Luke Gonsioroski on the day of his funeral.
Gonsioroski, an 18-year-old from Schillinger’s hometown, lost his hard-fought battle with cancer on Monday.
“I messaged a lot with Luke in the last few months,” Schillinger said. “I knew things weren’t very good, but he never seemed defeated. … He was a young guy taken way too soon that had such a bright future.”
Gonsioroski was first diagnosed with cancer last spring, after doctors in Billings found an eight-pound mediastinal mass comprised of both germ and cancer cells in the void between his lungs. He completed two rounds of chemotherapy before being declared cancer-free, though, with a caveat. The chemo didn’t decrease the size of his tumor.
In June 2016, Gonsioroski underwent a 16-hour surgery at the Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut, to remove the mass. After the tumor was removed, it was approximated to be the size of not one, but two footballs.
Two months later, Gonsioroski suited up under center and racked up 171 yards of total offense in a 47-0 shutout of the Wolf Point Wolves in the first game of his senior season. He led the Spartans to a wildcard spot in the Class B playoffs.
“Think about this. He had an eight-pound tumor taken out of his chest and two months later he’s playing football,” Schillinger said. “The kid is very inspiring. He always had a positive outlook on things. When I think I have things bad, I look back to that and what he was going through.”
Most of Gonsioroski's senior year was spent like the typical all-American high school kid: homecoming king, class valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA, preparing for college.
Gonsioroski announced his intentions to play for the Texas Tech Red Raiders as a preferred walk-on and was set to head down to Lubbock, Texas, on June 1.
"We were very interested in him here," Schillinger said. "But when he went down there on the visit to Texas Tech — that's a Big 12 school — they wanted him and that's a good opportunity. I was extremely excited for him to go down there. He was so looking forward to it. It's just unfortunate that he didn't get to continue to live it out."
Months before he was to report to Texas Tech for preseason football workouts, Gonsioroski didn’t feel right again. Another trip to the doctor revealed that his cancer was back — this time with spots on both his liver and spleen.
Even though Gonsioroski was armed with his infectiously positive attitude heading into his second bout, it wasn’t going to be enough. And on Monday, Schillinger received multiple phone calls from his friends and family to break the news of Gonsioroski's passing.
“I had a kid, a pallbearer in the funeral, Ryder Meyer, reach out to me and informed me,” Schillinger said. “Soon after that, my brother called me and let me know.”
The #LukeStrong band that Schillinger wears on his left wrist serves as a constant yet silent reminder. Schillinger said he will continue to wear it to honor Gonsioroski.
“He was a great role model for people of all generations in a small community like that,” Schillinger said. “He was valedictorian, the homecoming king. He was a great athlete that treated everybody the right way. He’s what you want in your kids. Truly, my thoughts are with his dad Charlie, his mom Katina and his sisters and the whole family and community.
“Just a crushing, crushing thing that’s very heartbreaking. It’s gonna take a long time for the community to overcome something like this.”