Ten-year-old Mia Gerold is attending her first Gophers football game Saturday and will have the best seat in the house.
She's leading the team onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium at the request of coach Jerry Kill.
They are two peas in a pod. Tender-hearted but tough enough to battle cancer head-on.
Diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer last spring, Mia has become a close friend of Kill, a cancer survivor. The two formed an immediate connection the first time they met and spent nearly three hours together in his office. He admires her strength and positive outlook. She likes how he treats her.
"He's really sweet to me," she said.
Kill invited Mia to share her story with the entire team, coaching staff and school officials on the eve of fall camp. Terrified to stand on a stage and speak in front of that many people, she never imagined it would end with a standing ovation and so many people with tears in their eyes.
"When I was told that I was going to speak to you guys, I wondered if there was anything I could say to help you," she told them. "I guess this is what I've come up with: Life is a gift and you should make the most of it. And if you are going through hard times, remember your blessings and that will get you through."
Kill doesn't give out his cell number to many people, but Mia has it. And she calls him often.
"We usually play phone tag," she said.
In one conversation, Mia asked if she could come to her first Gophers game this fall. Kill went a step further and asked her to lead the team onto the field for the home opener against New Mexico State.
"Each day for her is special," Kill said. "If we can make this day special for her, it will be something she'll never forget."
Getting past the shock
Mia's singular focus is to make every experience and every day count. She was forced to grow up entirely too soon when she learned she had a brain stem tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma.
Because of the tumor's location, surgery was not an option. Radiation is the only form of treatment. Mia got the diagnosis on her ninth birthday.
"To get a diagnosis of a brain stem tumor," said her mother, Sandy, "you can't breathe."
Mia didn't talk to anyone for several hours after she returned home that day. She stayed in her room alone and prayed. She approached her mom later that night and offered her encouragement.
"I love life," Mia said. "I have no reason not to love life because I've had nine long years of life. Anything happens now is just extra. It's sprinkles on a cake. I've had such a wonderful life and I just love life."
That became her motto. I love life. She tells everyone she meets. She is determined to make the most of every day and whatever happens is just "sprinkles on a cake."
She attacked 30 rounds of radiation with resolve last summer. Her MRI scans in May and late August came back clear. The tumor is not visible, but more radiation is not an option if it returns. Mia is not holding her breath, though. She's too busy living.
"You try not to live waiting for the other shoe to drop," Sandy said.
Mia celebrated her 10th birthday -- the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis -- at school. Gophers offensive lineman Josh Campion volunteered at her school that day and heard about Mia. When Campion told Kill about Mia, the coach called the school and arranged to meet her.
The two just "clicked" from the start, Mia said. They talked about their battles with cancer and everyday life. Kill loved her bubbly personality and her spunk.
He left his office for a few minutes during their visit and returned to find Mia sitting behind his desk. She challenged him on which one of them has done more things in life. She started by saying she's been to Disney World. Kill told her that he has, too.
"Yeah, but you didn't get to meet all the characters," she replied.
Mia 1, Kill 0.
Meaningful face time
Kill canceled his appointments that afternoon so he could spend more time with Mia. He had been in a bad mood and frustrated with something work-related early that day. He was so upset with himself after seeing Mia's cheerfulness that he walked home rather than make the 2-mile trek by car.
"I said to myself, 'What the heck are you doing?'" Kill said. "Here's this little girl, fighting for her life, and she has more energy and juice than you have."
That's Mia, or as she goes by on her CaringBridge website, "Marvelous Mia."
She makes you laugh with her quick wit and then brings you to tears when she reads the speech she delivered to the Gophers. The way she giggles and talks about play dates with her best friend makes one temporarily forget about her struggle. But the seriousness of her condition jolts you as she points to the tumor on her first brain scan.
She said she's not scared about what the future holds. And she asks for nothing. Just another day.
"Each night I pray for another day," she said. "I say, 'Please give me another day together with my mom.' I guess I try not to think about any of the bad things in my life and try and think of the good things. Cancer never really comes into my mind."
She knows she can always call Kill if it does, and he'll drop everything to help her. Kill was hired to win games and graduate players, but he wants to be measured by more than that.
"If I can help somebody here on this Earth, that's what I'm here for," he said. "I couldn't tell you my won-loss record right now if you ask me. I don't care. God doesn't care how many games we win. He doesn't care who wins on Saturday. But he does care how we treat people. Having this little girl who is fighting to live each day get to have a dream and lead our team onto the field, that will be as big of a moment to me as anything else that happens."
Kill's only concern is that one of his players doesn't run Mia over coming onto the field. Not to worry. Mia promised that she's pretty fast, and besides, she sounds like she can conquer anything.
She is, after all, simply marvelous.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org