As he watched Matt Meinholz fight for his life and later share his remarkable story of survival, University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan couldn’t help but notice several admirable traits the Middleton native possessed.
Meinholz was tough and courageous. He was smart and energetic. He was overwhelmingly positive and passionate about sports, especially basketball.
“That’s the kind of person,” Ryan told Meinholz’s parents, Marv and Karen, at one point, “that I want near me and I want part of this team.”
So Ryan did everything in his power to make it happen. And Meinholz, who was eager to be associated with a program he had grown up admiring, did his part, too.
Meinholz walked out of the Kohl Center last week beaming with excitement. The Badgers had just finished one of their offseason practices in preparation for a series of exhibition games in Canada later this month, and Meinholz, a first-year manager, enjoyed every minute of it.
His duties ranged from rebounding for players to keeping stats to hustling onto the Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion court to wipe up sweat. It’s hardly a glamorous job, but you’d never know that by the way Meinholz’s face lights up when he talks about it.
“I love being with the guys,” he said. “I love the sport, I love the game. There’s really no other place I’d rather be.”
It shows at night when Meinholz returns home and shares every last detail with his parents.
“He couldn’t be a happier kid,” Marv said. “Basketball has been a part of his life forever. It’s been his love. So the fact that he can now be associated with this program is pretty much a dream for him.”
Setting the tone
Before that dream came a nightmare. It began nearly two years ago — August 11, 2011, to be exact — when doctors discovered a tumor the size of a golf ball on Meinholz’s brain. He underwent surgery at UW Children’s Hospital three days later. The pathology report revealed the tumor was cancerous.
Meinholz was hospitalized in Madison for more than two weeks, then went through eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Boston. He returned home in December and received more chemo throughout the remainder of his senior year at Middleton.
His senior season of football was completely wiped out, as was most of his final season of basketball with the Cardinals.
But Meinholz got through it by waking up each morning and setting goals. Early in the process, the main one was to just get through that day’s chemo treatments. Some days, getting out of bed to take a few steps was a major accomplishment. Eventually, sheer will helped him go outside to shoot hoops.
Anything to keep pushing forward.
“What’s been amazing to everybody that has known Matt through this is he has been positive from the minute he was told he had a brain tumor,” Karen Meinholz said. “Matt has never had a pity party. It’s never been, ‘Why me? Poor me.’ He has set the tone for all of us.”
Ryan visited Meinholz in the hospital and kept tabs on his progress those first few months. Then the two talked at the Kohl Center on the night Meinholz spoke at the Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin Gala in the spring of 2012.
By that point, Meinholz was doing much better and mentioned he’d like to be a manager for the Badgers. Ryan’s response: “Get through this, and if you want to be a part of this, I’ll make it happen.”
Meinholz attended UW-La Crosse as a freshman but applied for a transfer to UW. His application included a letter of recommendation from Ryan.
“He’s the most genuine person I’ve ever met,” Marv Meinholz said of Ryan, who was as happy as anyone to receive the news in late spring that Matt had been accepted at UW. “The way he’s embraced Matt, I’m just in awe.”
Different kind of fight
Ryan fights cancer off the court as hard as he coaches on the court. He was named the 2013 recipient of the Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award for his efforts to raise funds that aid improvements in detection, raising awareness and diminishing suffering.
He says he’s inspired by Meinholz, who has impressed doctors with his progress. One lingering effect is nerve damage caused by the chemo that affects Meinholz’s stamina, strength and parts of his coordination, but each workout seems to get a little better.
“To me, with Matt around, it’s a person who fought the battle, gets a chance to do something that he almost never had a chance to do,” Ryan said. “So I’m sure he’s going to take advantage of it. There’s a guy who can’t help to wake up every morning and go, ‘OK, here we go.’ ”
Meinholz would like to be a college basketball coach one day and hopes to absorb as much knowledge as possible over the next three or four years with the Badgers.
But he says his role with the Badgers isn’t just important because of what it means for him.
“My personal battle may be over, but I just want to keep fighting and helping other people get through theirs because I definitely had a lot of support through mine,” he said.
“One of the things that makes me the most proud about coming back to manage is being able to have kids know about this happening and just know that I went to college after cancer. When kids have cancer, I don’t want them to feel like the rest of their life has to change. You can still go out and do what you want to do. Don’t let cancer hold you back from anything. You can go achieve whatever you want to achieve. I want other kids who have cancer to go out and fulfill their dreams.”