- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Northern Illinois senior kicker and punter Mike Salerno's thoughts will be with his younger sister, Randie, as he puts on his cleats before taking the field for the International Bowl on Saturday.
It's where his mind has been before every game this season. Ever since it was discovered Randie, 18, had Hodgkin's lymphoma on Aug. 6, which happened to be the first day of Huskies practice, Salerno has worn shoes with her initials, the date she was diagnosed and the words "Until the End," a song lyric from a Breaking Benjamin song, written on them.
"Until the end, we're going to be there to support her," said Salerno, whose younger brother, Ryan, is a freshman kicker at Northern Illinois. "It's about being there and doing everything you can until you beat it."
Salerno has attempted to do his part for his sister by playing well this season. Randie has always been her older brother's biggest fan, and he knows how she feels when he puts the ball between the uprights.
"My mom always told me, 'If you do well, that makes her feel better,'" Salerno said. "I kind of looked at it as I want to succeed for myself and the team, but also for my sister to try and bring her spirits up and make her proud."
Lately, Salerno has been perfect at that. He hasn't missed a field goal in Northern Illinois' past four games as he's been 6-for-6, including a 41-yarder against Ball State
For the season, he has been 18-for-23, with his long being from 50 yards. He's also had 24 punts for an average of 38.8 yards.
Now, he hopes to continue that success in his final college game. He expects it to help that Randie will be in the stands in Toronto on Saturday.
"When she can be there, there's, like, that strive or momentum to do well for her and make her proud," Salerno said.
Randie's health has improved greatly since August, but there have been times over the past months when she was quite sick and wasn't able to attend home games. Salerno was most afraid when she collapsed while walking the family's dog alone one day.
"I kind of got to see what it's like to be a parent and see what it's like when something happens to your kid," Salerno said. "It was a scary time, and it all worked out. Those are things that do happen. You learn through it. There have been ups and downs, but right now, things are going really well."
What kept Salerno from losing it himself during the hardest times was the advice he received from Huskies coach Jerry Kill. Kill himself had to have surgery in 2005 to remove a cancerous tumor in his kidney.
"Coach Kill, he obviously has gone through cancer in his own life, and he was really there to help me," Salerno said. "He said, 'You get one day to be sad, but after this you have to be strong. That's the only way to help to support her and be there for her.'"
Kill shied away from taking any credit.
"I don't know how much I helped Mike," Kill said. "His sister is very courageous. She was at our football banquet, and we acknowledged her as her being very mentally tough. Mike's a very resilient young man. His family are very good people. They've handled that situation very good. Mike's had a lot on his plate, and he's handled it very well. I think he's one of the better kickers around."
Salerno has been able to find one positive in all that's happened.
"We were close before," Salerno said. "She always looked up to me a little bit. When this happened, it definitely brings families together. You never wish anything like this upon anyone, but it definitely brings everyone together."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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