Jack Traxler of St. Paul always pictured himself a hockey player.
From a young age, he watched his two older brothers, Matthew and Andrew, play hockey for Cretin-Derham Hall. His goal? To follow in their footsteps.
“I always wanted to be like them,” he said.
A brain tumor made that dream impossible for the Cretin-Derham Hall senior, but it hasn’t stopped him from achieving a new goal:
Recognition as a dedicated — and scholarship-winning — golfer.
“I play sports, that’s what I do,” Traxler said. “I kind of thought, ‘What else can I do?’ So, I tried golf and that was the best sport I could play that I was OK at and could get better at over time.”
Traxler sees a lot of parallels between golf and his recovery. “I learned that after my brain tumor I had to be patient, let myself recover. I’ve learned many lessons through golf, [such as] waiting, having a positive mind-set, not giving up, continuing to live,” he said.
“Golf has been really good for me.”
At age 12, Traxler was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Within six months, the family suspected more was going on. He developed migraines and struggled through periods of extreme sicknesses that would seemingly start and stop without cause. Several trips to the doctor revealed no answers.
Jack’s mother, Colleen Traxler, recalled the confusion surrounding the time. “I was in a support group with other moms of diabetic children and would ask, ‘Don’t your kids get headaches and nausea and throw up from this and then they eat a whole bunch?’ ” she said. “And they would say, ‘No, not at all.’ ”
After several months of symptoms without a clear diagnosis, Traxler was sent to a neurologist. An MRI revealed a benign tumor on the back of his brainstem.
Traxler was directly admitted to Children’s Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis for surgery.
“It was traumatic,” he said. “I didn’t really know how it was going to impact me and my life.”
After surgery to successfully remove the tumor, Traxler spent over a year in physical, occupational and speech therapy. Still, effects lingered.
Now 18, Traxler continues to battle double vision, balance troubles and paralysis on the right side of his face, which left him unable to play hockey. Seeking a new identity, he found golf.
“For some kids, it’s scouting or it’s an instrument, but he was already 13 and didn’t have any of those other skills,” Colleen said. “So, we wanted to get him back to who he was, and he knew himself as an athlete.’’
Traxler has poured his time into golf, frequently playing with his family at Highland National Golf Course in St. Paul. A three-year member of the Cretin-Derham Hall golf team, he was looking forward to his fourth and final season this spring before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the season.
Traxler’s balance problems come into play every so often when he swings, and his double vision can make it hard to track the ball in the air on shots over 150 yards. But teammate Harry Olander said that if you didn’t know about his condition, you could hardly tell. Traxler regularly shoots around 90.
“If you just looked at him from an outside perspective, he’s no different than anyone else. He just plays golf,” said Olander, who grew up playing Little League Baseball with Traxler and has been close friends with him for over seven years.
“If there’s anyone who can get through it, it’s him, and not only get through it but overcome it and make it who he is. He’s a one-of-a-kind kid like that.”
Cretin-Derham Hall golf coach Charlie Lallas has seen that growth over the short period of time he has known Traxler. Lallas’ first year as coach was Traxler’s junior year. He knew very little about Traxler’s condition and Traxler never made much of a deal out of it. He wanted to be viewed like anyone else, Lallas said.
“You saw him get more comfortable with the team and you got to see who the real Jack was. Everyone wanted to be around him. He brightened up the course,” Lallas said.
“He would be everyone’s dream to coach. He doesn’t give up, he tries, he gives you 100% every day.”
Traxler’s determination led Youth on Course — a national golf organization that helps children play golf at reduced rates — to award him a $4,000 scholarship as its 2020 Jennifer Young Scholar. Traxler plans to attend Iowa State University in the fall to pursue an engineering degree.
He hopes his story will inspire other children who have gone through traumatic diagnoses, and help them re-engage in life with as much normalcy as possible, while accepting that they might always feel a little different.
That psychological aspect, he said, “needs to be prioritized by doctors and researchers. That’s the biggest thing that needs to be considered.”
Traxler has already helped inspire his teammates on and off the golf course, Olander said.
“Every time we have a bad day, we can hang our heads, but we can also look to Jack as inspiration and hope,” he said. “If Jack can do it, why can’t we?”
Paul Hodowanic (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.