How 12-year-old John Gegen found himself in a cabin in the Colorado mountains on a recent evening receiving a personal video message from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is a twisted tale.
With a happy ending.
Earlier that day, Nov. 8, young John, son of Jon and Shelly Gegen of Hastings, had felled a trophy bull elk with a single shot from a bolt-action rifle chambered for .308 Winchester. The distance was 175 yards and John’s direct hit was made off a bipod.
That John had never shot a rifle — or any firearm, except a BB gun — before arriving with his dad in Colorado some 48 hours earlier makes the achievement remarkable.
But John’s a remarkable kid.
When he was just 5, he was diagnosed with stage IV high-risk neuroblastoma, a fast-growing cancer of the nerve cells. Doctors at Children’s Minnesota in Minneapolis found cancer in John’s leg bones, shoulder and skull, and a solid tumor above his left adrenal gland.
His treatment lasted three years and would include surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, a stem-cell transplant, and inclusion in a clinical trial that required him and his parents to travel to Grand Rapids, Mich.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Shelly, who teaches fifth grade at Hastings Middle School. “The first year of his treatment sometimes required 20 days in the hospital at a time. He only got upset when he learned he would lose his hair, and when he was surprised by unexpected hospital stays. Otherwise he amazed us every day.”
Indistinguishable now from other sixth-graders, John plays hockey and lacrosse. He hadn’t hunted before the Colorado trip because his illness and treatments cramped his recreation time. But his two older brothers, Michael, 21, and Jeffrey, 18, hunt, as does his dad, who works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
“When we got ‘the call,’ there had already been quite a bit of hunting going on in our family this fall,” Shelly said. “The older boys and Jon had been to southwest Minnesota and to South Dakota for pheasants.”
“The call” was from the Carson Wentz AO1 (Audience of One) Foundation. Wentz, the Eagles quarterback who was drafted second overall in 2016 after leading the North Dakota State University Bison to multiple national championships, is a devout Christian who started the foundation last year.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., where he was valedictorian of his high school class, Wentz is an avid hunter who steers his foundation in three directions: distributing free food; helping to build a sports complex in Haiti; and hosting an outdoor camp for children while also each year offering several young people once-in-a-lifetime outdoor adventures.
In addition to military veterans, trip candidates include kids with physical challenges and life-threatening illnesses, as well as those who lack outdoor opportunities.
“Our team at AO1 and Carson’s love of the outdoors are what sparked the outdoor program initiative,” said Cole Davis, the foundation’s operations director. “We want to share the love of God’s creation with kids who may or may not have missed out on certain opportunities in their lives, given their set of circumstances.”
The Gegens heard from the AO1 Foundation only two weeks before the proposed Colorado hunt.
“They were looking for a boy who was healthy enough to make the trip,” John’s dad said. “I’m a bird hunter, not a big game hunter, but Shelly and I talked it over with John, and he and I decided to go.”
John qualified for Colorado’s hunter apprentice program, sparing him the requirement that he hold a firearms safety certificate to buy a big game license. Nevertheless, he and his dad took the online portion of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hunter education and safety program before flying to Denver and driving four hours farther to Brush Mountain Ranch, arriving late Nov. 6.
“We got up at 4:45 the next morning, had breakfast, and John practiced with the rifle,” his dad said. “It packed a pretty good punch, but he shot well at 100 yards.”
The ranch was private. But the elk were wild and the hunt was far from easy. The temperature was in the single digits the first morning when a ranch guide, along with Davis and a photographer/videographer, set out with John and his dad to hike about 9 miles in the mountains.
The next day they trekked a similar distance in equally chilly weather before John leveled the .308 at the bull elk standing in a herd of some 25 animals.
“The guide was really good,” his dad said. “He made sure John was looking through the scope at the correct elk, because he only had a license to kill a legal bull.” Meaning, in Colorado, a bull with antlers bearing at least four points on one side, or a 5-inch brow tine.
That night in a lodge cabin, after John had texted the day’s excitement to his mom and brothers, with photos, he watched as Davis played a videotaped personal message to him from Wentz. Davis also prayed with the boy and presented him with an autographed No. 11 Philadelphia Eagles jersey.
On Monday, John will undergo yet another set of blood draws and other tests. If everything is OK, the tests he now endures semiannually will shift to annually.
Jon and Shelly Gegen know how lucky they are. Some kids they met during John’s three years of treatment didn’t make it.
“John’s experience sticks with his dad and me every day,” Shelly said. “Through it all, it’s the kindness and generosity of other people we’ll remember most.”