"Jesus Christ has me in the palm of his hand, and everything will be okay," -- words of Luke Gonsioroski, on a T-shirt worn at his funeral.
BAKER – Faith, family and football were the guiding lights of Luke Gonsioroski’s brief life, and all three were in sharp focus Friday afternoon as roughly 1,000 people – about half the agricultural town’s population -- gathered above the 50-yard-line at Schillinger Stadium to say a final good-bye.
Handkerchiefs dabbed sniffles and misty eyes as speakers memorialized one of Baker High’s all-time standout athletes with stories, music, poetry and a video shown on a maroon scoreboard lit with the number “5” – Gonsioroski’s number.
Gonsioroski, an unfailingly polite three-time Class B all-state quarterback and 4.0 student who was destined for Texas Tech this month as a preferred walk-on, died at his home late Monday after a second battle with cancer within 15 months. He was two months shy of his 19th birthday.
“I never thought the next time I’d be on a field with him it would be celebrating his life,” Gonsioroski’s sister Hannah said through intermittent tears after reading a poem that began “Our Luke is with our Savior and our hearts are broke in two.”
“I always thought … it would be back coaching alongside coach (Dave) Breitbach or coming back from the NFL to speak here. He was special and I’m going to miss him so much.”
On a sunny afternoon, close to 100 family members sat on folding chairs on a track where Gonsioroski once excelled as well. Flowers were arranged in a semi-circle behind a lectern set on the 50-yard-line a few feet from a white casket bearing a cream bouquet of flowers and Gonsioroski’s football helmet; his maroon No. 5 jersey and shoulder pads hung nearby.
Scattered among the gathering in the shaded bleachers were jerseys of Baker rivals from as far away as Fairfield. Pallbearers all wore white Spartan road jerseys, except for Luke’s cousin Gabe Gonsioroski, of the Richey-Lambert Fusion.
It was a fitting setting to say good-bye for one of the top players to ever come from a town rich in football tradition. Also fitting, given Gonsioroski’s devout faith, were the speakers’ repeated references to his spirituality.
“His life and passing is something we can shed tears of joy over,” Breitbach told the crowd, his voice cracking periodically. “Yes, tears of joy – because he’s with his Savior now.”
It was during track season that Gonsioroski noticed something amiss with his health, first in 2016 and again this past spring. In June 2016, an eight-pound tumor was removed from his chest. Four months later, he recovered to earn all-state honors in football and return to the basketball floor.
But the cancer returned with a vengeance in the spring.
Breitbach noted that Gonsioroski nevertheless routinely calmed all who worried about him and his advancing cancer in recent months by finishing texts and phone conversations with, “Don’t worry, I’ll be all right.”
“Ten days ago it finally hit me that what Luke was telling me was he will be all right because of his faith,” Breitbach said.
Gonsioroski grew up on a 5,000-acre ranch about nine miles north of Baker, where he developed an affinity for tractors before sports. Eventually, football won out and he made his presence felt as a freshman, rushing for 126 yards and two touchdowns against Lodge Grass.
As a sophomore he became the starting quarterback and as a junior his talents were so evident that Breitbach, a self-described “old-school coach” who liked to pass only in an emergency, retooled the Baker offense to give his star quarterback more freedom. The speedy 6-foot-2, 195-pounder ran for 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns and threw for 1,100 yards and 15 more TDs.
“Luke’s world got crazier,” Breitbach said. “Baker became the stopping point for college coaches.”
Everything changed the following spring. Eventually a football-sized tumor was removed in a 16-hour surgery at the Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
Nobody expected Gonsioroski to play again. But he did, starring again in his senior season.
In recounting Gonsioroski’s senior season, Breitbach described the many times the old-school football coach was reduced to tears of happiness, drawing chuckles from the crowd as he jokingly ascribed it to “allergies”.
“I had a lot of allergy outbreaks,” Breitbach said, sharing a memory of watching Gonsioroski walk off the field after Baker’s final game last fall and thinking himself “the luckiest person in the world because I had witnessed first-hand a miracle.”
After a closing prayer from Pastor Jeremy Vester of the Break Forth Bible Church in Glendive, the pallbearers carried Gonsioroski out of Schillinger Stadium for the final time. Gonsioroski’s parents, Charles, who wore a white and red-trimmed Texas Tech polo shirt, and Katina, parted from the procession after it went through an inflated Spartans helmet and greeted each of the 1,000 attendees as they walked single-file to the high school parking lot.
Moments later, the white Stevenson Funeral Home car carrying the casket was driven to Bonnievale Cemetery, where Gonsioroski was laid to rest.