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All things
An unexpected turn leads back to the soccer field
By Bruce VanBaren

Gearing up for his second season as a Knight, Michael Holwerda was expecting things to go smoothly. In his freshman season, Holwerda was fourth on the team in goals and third on the team in assists, starting all but two games on a team that nearly reached the NCAA quarterfinals.

“I had high expectations for [my sophomore season],” he said. “I was hoping to improve on [my freshman] season and lead the team further into the tournament.” He was most looking forward to sharing the midfield for the final season with his brother Dave, a senior.

But things took an unexpected turn.

Michael HolwerdaIn August of 2006, just when the Knights were starting summer workouts, an X-ray revealed that Holwerda had some sort of mass in his back.

What caused even more of a scare was that his family had a history of cancer. Dave had come back from Hodgkin's disease his freshman year at Calvin. Holwerda's mother overcame the same illness when she was pregnant with Mike.

Further tests revealed that Holwerda would have to undergo surgery to remove what was most likely a benign, non-cancerous tumor. His season was over.

In September, Holwerda was set for embolization at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, a pre-surgical procedure to block off blood from his lower back where the believed tumor was, when things took another unexpected turn.

The neurologist canceled surgery, believing that the mass in his back wasn't a tumor, but rather an AVM, a clump of blood vessels. It was not more or less serious than a benign tumor, but it would only further complicate the process.

Then began a search for answers.

In October, as the soccer team was preparing to face rival Hope, Holwerda and his father, Jim, who had already seen his wife as well as his oldest son overcome serious medical conditions, traveled to the University of Chicago and the Cleveland Clinic on a two-day trip to find the answers they needed. Holwerda wouldn't be on the sidelines for the biggest game of the season.

In Chicago, the doctors confirmed what the neurologist in Grand Rapids had suspected: It was a clump of blood vessels.

“When I was leaving Chicago, I felt really good about the situation. I even joked to my dad that we don't even need to go to anywhere else … because I thought we had this figured out.”

But the puzzle to solving his illness was still far from a solution, as he would find out in Cleveland. The family was taken back a step when the doctor said he was 70 percent sure the mass in Holwerda's back was a tumor.

“That was a pretty depressing day, because it brought cancer back into the scenario. This was a little over a month after we were convinced it was an AVM, so this whole time it was relieving to know that cancer was ruled out. To have cancer bounced around was frightening for not only me, but my family as well.”

Back in Michigan, rain flooded the soccer field in Holland, postponing Calvin's big game, allowing Holwerda to return in time from Cleveland to be on the sidelines.

“Before we left Cleveland Clinic, my dad asked the doctor, ‘If you had to have this procedure done, where would you go?' He threw out Dr. Gokaslan's name at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. But he told us he's usually a really busy guy, usually booked,” Holwerda said.

“It was definitely a time of giving control over to God. A small prayer I used hundreds of times was ‘it's on you.' It was one of those times I didn't know what was going on most of the time. It taught me a lot about dependence on God and that everything happens in God's time.”

Jim Holwerda contacted Dr. Gokaslan, who was very interested in the case. After several meetings, both parties decided to proceed with the necessary surgery.

After an all-day surgery in which Gokaslan had to remove the tumor, fuse his vertebrae together and insert two steel rods and five screws, the doctor announced to the entire Holwerda family — who all made the trip — that the surgery was a success.

“As for how we ended up at Johns Hopkins, I'll never know. To get to the Cleveland Clinic first of all was through something like my aunt's neighbor's friend's family member who worked in the Cleveland Clinic. And then we got down there, and to have my dad ask the doctor, ‘Where would you go?' and them giving me Dr. Gokaslan's name. “It's a chain of events that seemed way too random to be just random,” Holwerda said.

Holwerda, now a junior, stepped onto the field for the first time since his freshman year in late August in a game at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. Holwerda's family made the trip to watch the final chapter in his comeback.

“I wasn't sure what to expect the first game. Obviously I wanted to play well, but at the same time I was just happy to be out there, happy my family was down there.”

Holwerda entered in the 25th minute. Not 10 minutes later, he collided with a defender. The defender hit the ground; Holwerda shot the ball into the net, the first of two goals he would score on the day, en route to a season that would see him land a spot on the All-MIAA first team.

Walking off the field after leading his team to its first win of the season, Holwerda realized not much had changed since his freshman season. Only now when he looked up and said, “It's on you,” it took on a whole new meaning.