Mount Prospect teen wins Wolves scholarship
Those who know Tim Gruensfelder agree on two things -- he never lets anything stop him, and he never shows how much his battle with a rare cancer affects him on any given day.
Tim, a senior at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, earned this year's Chicago Wolves' Breslin Memorial Scholarship, awarded to someone who has thrived after overcoming a hardship.
At age 4, Tim was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma, a cancer that started in his brain and moved to his spine, eventually requiring him to use wheelchair since he was in the fifth grade.
Now 18, Tim is a fierce basketball competitor, a nationally ranked archer and an active volunteer who's put in hundreds of hours helping different causes. He's also an outstanding student who will attend St. Louis University on a full-tuition scholarship.
The Wolves' scholarship is named after Tim Breslin, one of the first three players the franchise signed after forming in 1994. Breslin died in 2005 due to complications from appendiceal cancer.
His widow, Jami Breslin. said she knew Tim Gruensfelder was the clear winner of this year's scholarship -- out of about 300 applicants -- as soon as she read his essay.
"We look for someone who we think best represents the qualities that my late husband demonstrated in terms of being a hard worker and having a positive attitude, especially through experiencing something significantly difficult," Jami Breslin said.
"(Tim's) essay was so honest and open and positive. He's a very down-to-earth kid."
Tim was honored before the Wolves' game on April 6.
"I met him at the game, and I knew this kid is really special," she said. "He has just a smile on his face -- he's so polite, so gracious, so grateful. This kid is extraordinary."
Only about 200 children and young people are diagnosed with ependymomas each year in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.
"It was gradual," Tim said of his paralysis. "In the fourth grade I had trouble walking, then I had another tumor and another surgery, and then I knew I could be in a wheelchair. Then it happened after another surgery."
Getting used to life in a wheelchair was a journey, Tim said.
"It wasn't too bad, but it took me a little while," he said. "Kids born in a wheelchair, that's all they know. It did hurt for a little bit, but my friends and family were great."
The most devastating part was not being able to play sports like baseball, soccer and basketball, Tim says.
"I loved sports," he said. "You'd never find me inside, always outside playing sports. When this happened, when I was put in a wheelchair, everything changed."
Still, Tim had a great attitude from the start, said his mother, Denise Gruensfelder.
"His motto is 'Never give up,'" she said.
Denise Gruensfelder works as an instructional aide at St. Raymond de Penafort School in Mount Prospect. Tim's father, Bob, works in sales for an industrial supply company. The couple have two more sons, ages 9 and 21.
"We have definitely learned from Tim how to persevere and live life to the fullest," Denise said.
A turning point for Tim came in the sixth grade, when he joined a wheelchair basketball team through the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association. His best season with the GLASA Waves came last year, when the team won a pair of tournaments, he said.
"I was a little bit skeptical at first. I didn't know what it was going to be like," he said. "But once I started playing in the first practice, I loved it and was glad to be playing sports again."
Tim took up archery about three years ago and won first place in his class and age group at regionals in the last two years. In 2012, he placed second at nationals in Michigan.
Basketball remains his favorite sport, however.
"It's a lot more fast-paced, a lot more aggressive," he said. "You're always moving in basketball."
Despite being laid-back off the court, Tim is intense on the court, said Tom Daily, coach of the GLASA Waves team. Tim was co-captain this season and earned recognition as an Academic All-American in the sport.
"Once the ball is tipped, Tim flips the switch and he's 100 percent basketball. Go, go, go," Daily said. "Off the court, he's very mature, very relaxed, very sociable and very well-liked."
While basketball draws out the fierce competitor in him, archery demands all his patience.
"Especially if you're outside and there is wind and other weather conditions, you have to be able to not get frustrated and keep your cool," he said.
Tim is fully aware of his split personality.
"When I'm on the court, I'm a completely different person. I yell a lot," he said. "I even tell people, my teammates, because some of them don't have the same attitude, I tell them, 'Anything I say on the court, it's not me, it's not personal.'"
Still, he doesn't get too intense about losing, he said.
"When I lose I'm upset, but I realize it doesn't mean much, it's not the end of the world. It takes me a half-hour (to get over it) -- if that."
Tim was sidelined for about six weeks this winter when he overextended his back and suffered some numbness in his hands. But he never failed to show up for games, cheering and helping coach from the sidelines, Daily said.
"He's really a born leader," he said. "He's a really smart kid. He's got his ducks in a row, and he's sure to do great things. He doesn't want other people to do it for him, he wants to do it himself."
Tim proves his smarts in the classroom as well as the basketball court. He's a member of the National Honor Society, carrying a GPA of 95.5 on a 100-point scale.
Tim wants to study accounting and entrepreneurship in college. His goal is to open his own business, he said.
"I'm thinking of a resort on the lake, somewhere in Tennessee. There's good weather year-round, and there are a lot of good lakes," he said.
Tim is popular among his peers at St. Viator, where he was named homecoming king in the fall after being part of homecoming court in previous years, Principal Eileen Manno said.
"He's so genuine with the other kids," Manno said. "He never looks for sympathy or empathy, he just does what he has to do. It's never stopped him for doing anything; he never looked for exceptions for his situations."
Tim recently had a recurrence of his spinal tumor, which grew slightly.
"Most people in the building don't know he has had this recurrence because he just moves forward," Manno said. "I'm just so proud he is a student here. He models for other kids that there aren't limits when you push yourself, and you have dreams you're focused on."
Tim has been participating in chemotherapy trials since he was a little boy, some more harrowing than others.
"We've decided to participate in trials to hopefully find a cure for Tim or other children, or so at least the doctors can find more information about how to cure this cancer," Denise Gruensfelder said.
He recently finished a trial of chemo pills that had very few side effects, but for about three years he went through rounds of IV chemo that made him nauseated for days. He's also lost his hair in the past.
"I don't mind being on trial because it helps the medical field," he said.
Tim said he loves to volunteer. It started as a school requirement, but now he puts in about 10 to 15 hours a month during the school year and up to 10 hours a week during the summer. Among his causes are packaging food for the charity Feed My Starving Children, leading retreats and aiding theater productions at St. Raymond in Mount Prospect.
His family also has organized large block parties to raise funds for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation for about 10 years.
Although people with anaplastic ependymoma can live long lives, the shadow cast by the disease looms large.
"I haven't had tumors in the brain since 2001, but we still have to watch it," Tim said. "You never know when it could grow -- when it could grow fast, when it could grow slow."
So what's it like to live with that uncertainty?
"I just live my normal life, I don't worry about it," he said. "I just do what I love to do."