Cal's LaFontaine-Kussmann beats lymphoma, eyes starting job
Jorden LaFontaine-Kussmann wasn't so different from the thousands of other freshmen finding their way around the campus of the University of California late last summer.
Granted, she was one of the only new arrivals ranked among the nation's top handful of soccer recruits. And she was the only one who had represented her country with a youth national team during a tour of Japan. But you don't get to Berkeley -- annually among the nation's premier public universities as well as one of its quirkiest campuses -- by being comfortably average.
Unique though each student might have been on a case-by-case basis -- whether a cello prodigy, a budding politician or a nimble soccer goalie -- all the newcomers scrambling for used textbooks, searching for unfamiliar buildings and sampling the best late-night takeout options took part in the ritual of adjustment.
"It's really nerve-racking -- going into a whole new situation and trying to get used to the intensity of the college level and getting to know all the girls," LaFontaine-Kussmann recalled. "It's scary, but it's so exciting at the same time, to be able to be on your own and experience everything. And Cal, it's one of the best campuses, and I love the people, the atmosphere, the teachers. It was so much fun just to get in there."
In a few days, she will be back in Berkeley to prepare for preseason soccer practices and the start of classes. But regardless of whether she sets up shop in goal when Cal opens its regular season at San Jose State two days after classes begin, the route she traveled to her sophomore year sets her apart from even her eclectic peers on campus and around the country.
Where LaFontaine-Kussmann is going is nothing compared to where she's been.
With all that was new looming in advance of her freshman fall, perhaps it's no surprise that LaFontaine-Kussmann's first reaction to the shortness of breath she felt while working out at her home near Seattle was to push through the discomfort. After all, even with all the recruiting accolades and her experiences in the Olympic Development Program, she knew playing in a top college program would bring new challenges -- all the more so considering the coach who had recruited her, Kevin Boyd, had resigned after 10 seasons.
"I've been used to just getting through the pain," LaFontaine-Kussmann said of the normal wear and tear of life at the upper echelon of athletics. "If it's bad, I go and have the physical therapist look at it or have the trainer see what's wrong. So for me, at first, I didn't know what it was, and I hadn't had anything like it before."
She logged a clean sheet for 68 minutes in her first college start and allowed just two goals in the equivalent of nearly three complete games in her first five appearances. But when the hit-and-miss discomfort of the summer morphed into more consistent chest pain after early practices in the fall, she finally sought help from the team's training staff.
That was on a Tuesday. A week and a half later, on a Friday, a doctor told her she had lymphoma.
Two weeks earlier, on a Friday, she had played a half against Saint Mary's. Then she watched two days later as her team upset No. 1 Santa Clara 2-0 on the road.
Fourteen days isn't a lot of time for the world to change. Even the most diligent among us probably has put off some task or chore for that long -- an oil change here, a squeaky door there. It certainly isn't enough time to learn an entirely new vocabulary.
"At first, I didn't even have a clue [lymphoma] was cancer," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "I really didn't even know what it was. And then [the doctor] said, 'This is a form of cancer.'
"And I was like, 'Oh. Oh, so this is pretty serious.'"
Keepers can go long stretches in games without expending any noticeable energy. When the action does come to them, the good ones know how to read far enough ahead in the script to defuse potentially dangerous situations before they require aerial acrobatics, by cutting down angles and marshaling defenders. But even the headiest keeper can't foretell every deflection or every bad bounce. In those instances in which there can be no advance preparation, it's the great ones who respond well instinctively.
That is to say, a keeper's existence is not unlike how most of us go through life. We prepare as best we can and hope we have what it takes to get through the rest. So when lymphoma threatened LaFontaine-Kussmann's future, her instincts took over.
"I'm the type of person that I just really don't like hearing negatives; I try and stay positive through everything," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "So at one point, I did go on some Web site that was explaining all the symptoms and side effects of chemo and everything like that. And I looked at the page, and it was alphabetized A to Z, and it had at least 20 different side effects for each letter, and I just didn't want to see it.
"I was going to do a little bit of research, but then I just forgot about it. I knew my doctors were going to take care of me and they were going to do whatever was necessary. I was just going to have the best attitude going in there, and whatever was thrown at me, I'd deal with."
And like a keeper getting a key clearance from a teammate after making a miraculous save, she found she had plenty of support from a network of teammates and friends she had known only a couple of months. Self-sufficient by nature, she was open about the illness but initially harbored reservations about the difference between support and pity.
"I wasn't sensitive about telling anybody about what's going on, but there's always that stigma to cancer," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "People just don't understand, and they fear what they don't understand. So I really didn't want people to treat me differently at all, especially my new teammates who I just started to really get to know and they were great girls."
She needn't have worried. Responding to a joke she made, friends on the men's soccer team at California shaved their heads in a show of support when LaFontaine-Kussmann lost her hair in chemotherapy. One of her own teammates cut off a full foot of her own hair to help make a wig. Teams around the country -- including Pac-10 rival Arizona State, where former Cal coach Boyd ended up -- wore wristbands in support. Sometimes those closest just did nothing -- and did it to perfection.
"My teammates got it right off the bat," LaFontaine-Kussmann explained. "That I didn't really need to talk about it, but just having someone there, some companionship there to hang out with, was really important. Everybody was so supportive and so loving that it was just such a relief for me. It really lifted my confidence and helped me get through a lot of things."
LaFontaine-Kussmann began chemotherapy treatments shortly after being diagnosed in October. But instead of returning home to Washington, she remained in the Bay Area for treatment. The cancer took her off the soccer field, but she didn't want to let it force her off the campus to which she had been introduced only recently. She dropped two of the four classes in which she originally enrolled, but that was the extent of her concession.
"I didn't want to leave school," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "The hard thing about getting chemo is you feel sick for the first week, but then the next two weeks you're fine. I live in Washington, so I didn't want to go all the way home and then be bored for the two weeks I was feeling good and then have to feel sick for a week. School kept me preoccupied. And it was nice knowing that I still got the credits and I could go through something like chemo and battle through it and take my classes."
Fortunate in that her lymphoma was caught in its early stages, she responded well to chemotherapy. By March, while LaFontaine-Kussmann was taking a full load of spring semester classes, tests revealed no signs of the mass in her chest that had been so visible the previous fall.
"You can't go through something like this and not have your perspective changed," she said. "I appreciate things so much more. Things are so much more important to me. I let the little trivial matters that aren't really going to affect me slide off. I think I'm way easier going with a lot of things, but I'm a lot more passionate about the things I care about now."
Those things extend beyond the soccer field. LaFontaine-Kussmann wants to look into starting a big-sister, big-brother program for young cancer patients who might benefit from talking with peers who know what they're going through and what's ahead. And while she isn't sure about a major just yet, psychology is one option that intrigues a student-athlete who more than embodies the NCAA's preferred (but occasionally misleading) label for its charges.
Of course, her passion has always been at its most intense on the field, playing the sport she fell head over heels for at 8 years old. It's evident in her voice when she talks about earning the starting job at Cal -- not at some point down the road, but right now. LaFontaine-Kussmann hands came back quickly once she was cleared to resume practicing, and her lungs followed. Now it's about working and waiting for the muscles ambushed by chemotherapy to return in full. That's why each summer day begins with about three hours of running and goalkeeping exercises.
"I just knew I was going to be out there [this] season," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "It didn't seem like the end, like I was never going to be out there again."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.