Bowler uses game to give back, fight cancer
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Travis Koenig woke up one morning in the fall of 2009 with a golf-ball-sized lump sticking out the side of his neck. Like a ball of leather.
"Whoa! What happened to your neck?" his wife, Jena, said when she woke up.
He didn't know what was wrong. It's just a big knot, he figured.
The 25-year-old Lincoln father of two asked his friend Kyle Shunkwiler, a chiropractor, what he thought it was that afternoon before they went to a movie together.
"Kyle, you've got to feel this thing," Koenig said.
Shunkwiler gave it a feel but wasn't sure what it was so he told him to come in the next day.
"What do you think you did?" he asked Koenig.
"Well, I was horsing around with the kids," Koenig said. "Jena was on my back and Wyatt and Piper were on her lap, and I was giving them horsy rides. Maybe I pulled a muscle."
So he had it drained, and it was gone. But for good?
At age 3, Koenig discovered his first love. His dad took him bowling for the first time at Country Lanes in Beatrice. Bowling's a family thing, passed down generation to generation. His dad, Steve, is a bowler, and his great-grandfather was one of the best in the state. Koenig has bowling running through his veins. As a senior at Beatrice High School, Koenig made the first team all-state squad.
Koenig walked onto the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's campus in 2002 as a freshman with one goal in mind: make the Husker club bowling team. With only two open spots and 14 other bowlers vying for them, the chances were slim. But with a good showing, Koenig joined the team.
As a freshman, he made the traveling roster halfway through the season. He ended up starting every tournament for the rest of his career. He was one of the Huskers' best bowlers as he threw three 299 games while in college with a high three-game series of 777.
The Huskers made it to nationals in his first year, a three-day tournament. After a disappointing day one, they faced a climb out of the depths of the losers' bracket, in the semifinals against Morehead State. The teams bowled in a best-of-seven baker matchup. In baker games, each team has a five-man lineup. They go through the lineup twice each game so everyone bowls two frames.
The Huskers took down Morehead State, but being in the losers' bracket, they had to face Morehead again to advance to the nationally televised finals on ESPN.
In the next set of bakers, the Huskers found themselves tied 3-3 going into the seventh game. The whole season hung in the balance. A missed single pin in the ninth frame ended it for the Huskers, and they went home with a third-place finish.
It was the best finish Koenig had in his career at Nebraska. After college, bowling would have to take a back seat for a few years as Koenig started a family and faced some very real struggles.
Shortly after finding the lump in his neck the first time, Koenig and his family went to Montana to visit his parents. They spent most of their first night at the hotel playing in the pool. He was going down the water slide with his kids, Wyatt and Piper, holding them high above his head as they hit the water so they wouldn't go under.
The next morning, Koenig woke up with eight lumps all over his neck. He wore a turtleneck the rest of the weekend.
"It was funny because she's hiding her pregnancy and I'm hiding these lumps on my neck," Koenig said. "And I'm just like, 'Let's get the hell out of here.'"
The only day Koenig could get into the doctor was his daughter Piper's first birthday. He went in for an ultrasound and kept his eyes glued to the monitor. Black dots peppered the screen -- they were the lumps he had found. He had never seen anything like that on an ultrasound -- and he had been looking at a lot of ultrasounds lately with two small children and a pregnant wife.
The doctor told him he was 99 percent sure it meant Hodgkin's lymphoma, a curable cancer that originates in the lymph nodes.
Koenig got the ball rolling with his treatment immediately.
In the two weeks after being diagnosed, he had three surgeries. Doctors removed one of the tumors. Then they inserted a port directly into his heart to pump the chemo. But no procedure was worse than the bone marrow test. Doctors would grind into his hip bone to get a whole bone fragment. On the first try, they didn't go deeply enough. They had to dig in again.
"It's not for the weak of heart," Koenig said.
For almost two months, Koenig was working full time at Star City Motor Sports and Ruby Tuesday. That's 70 hours a week while taking chemotherapy. And his wife was pregnant with baby No. 3. But he had to work through it -- until his body couldn't take it any longer.
His immune system crashed and he came down with pneumonia on his wife's birthday. Trying to tough out the day for Jena, they went out to dinner at Grisanti's. But Koenig's fever spiked to 101 degrees, a sometimes fatal occurrence for chemo patients, sending him to the hospital, where he spent the next week.
"I was fine with working those hours until I was in the hospital bed thinking, 'It just isn't worth it to try to kill myself working,'" Koenig said.
He said he never had thoughts about dying. He was determined to beat this as he had every other challenge.
"I'm a doer. Right there, I was like, 'All right, what do we have to do?'" he said. "I guess my attitude in life helped the cause."
His dad was just as confident his son could beat it.
"His mother was terrified," he said. "I was obviously concerned, but I never had a doubt that he would beat it because he's just always overcome everything that's been thrown in front of him."
After getting out of the hospital, Koenig knew he couldn't keep going at this break-neck pace. Jena told him he needed to worry about getting healthy. They could worry about money later, even though things were going to get tight.
He quit Star City and went down to working 15 hours a week at Ruby Tuesday. Jena went back to work at Ruby Tuesday as a server to help make ends meet.
Needing something to occupy his new-found time, Koenig did something he hadn't done in three years: He joined a bowling league.
"When I was sick, bowling was my out," he said. "It was three hours a week away from thinking about being sick."
Koenig wouldn't let being sick get to him. Not during bowling. His average had fallen to the 210 range, a significant drop from his normal average of 227. Still, it was one of the highest in the league.
Andrew Leepch, a friend of Koenig's who bowled with him in league, said Koenig never really let being sick affect him on the lanes.
"Obviously, his life was in a difficult stage, but he just loves bowling so much that it was off his mind. He's a trooper," Leepch said. "You could tell he just got done with a surgery or treatment and he was still there bowling."
Then came some good news for the Koenig family. In March 2010, Doctors told Koenig he was cancer-free. Four days later, their baby girl, Chloe, was born.
"That was probably the best week of our lives," Koenig said, "Chloe was healthy. I was healthy. Jena was healthy."
This past February, Koenig got to walk away from both his jobs for a new one at New York Life as a financial planner.
"It felt good to walk away from two jobs to one and actually make more money," Koenig said, "And for me personally, to be able to enjoy my family for once."
Koenig started volunteering at Sun Valley's youth bowling leagues on Saturday mornings. His 4-year-old son, Wyatt, is starting to bowl this year.
Sitting at a table by the ball return, Koenig watches quietly, intently while young bowlers all around him take their shots. He walks up to a young girl, maybe 14 years old. After a short talk about adjustments and mechanics, she buries her next shot for a strike. Smiling all the way to her seat, she thanks Koenig with a high five.
It's fundamentals that are lacking in youth bowlers, Koenig says. It's not their fault; they haven't had anyone to teach them correctly. That's where Koenig comes in. He's been lending his insight to young bowlers with a lot of promise, just not enough coaching.
Maybe Koenig can influence some kids to love the same game he does. After all, how could it hurt to learn from a guy with a 227 average?
"I know a lot about the game. Bowling's been great to me, so if I can give something back to the kids, that's great," he said.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com