A Young Man's Impact

May 2, 2006

On December 8th, 21-year-old junior, Casey O’Rourke underwent a series of tests at University of Iowa Hospitals. At first he didn’t think anything of it, but the tests seemed to drag on. He grew impatient as to why it was taking so long. Was there something wrong? He called his coach, Jack Dahm, who said he could hear concern in Casey’s voice.

The tests were due to concerns, by doctors, about O’Rourke’s testicle. He had begun to see problems after surgery on his appendix. During a check-up for the surgery, doctors did an ultra sound on his testicle to see if there was a tumor. This led to being tested for cancer. After a CT scan was done, doctors noticed that his lymph nodes were swollen.

A half hour after ending their conversation, O’Rourke called his coach again. This time the call was to deliver disheartening news.

“Coach, I got it,” O’Rourke said.

“Cancer,” Dahm asked.

“Yes,” O’Rourke replied.

Doctors had diagnosed him with testicular cancer. It was a very tough phone call for Dahm to receive. He had a hollow feeling inside. He had never expected one of his players, one of his kids to come down with cancer.

O’Rourke isn’t like any other person on the street. The 6-foot-4-inch, 180-pound pitcher is in great physical condition. A natural athlete. During his high school career he was not only an all-state pitcher, but an all-state quarterback and all-district point guard as well. Until a breakout season on the diamond his junior year, he considered playing basketball at the collegiate level.

After hearing the diagnosis, Dahm wanted to learn more about cancer in general. The most shocking statistic that he found was that the prime age for men to get testicular cancer is 18-24. Early in his time at Iowa, O’Rourke had seen one of his friends go through the same situation he is now going through.

“One of my best friend’s as a freshman was Brock Ita, who was on the football team. He was also diagnosed with testicular cancer,” O’Rourke said. “It’s just one of those things you think other people will get, but you won’t.”

On the day O’Rourke was diagnosed with cancer, Coach Dahm had a team meeting to discuss leadership, but this issue never came up. O’Rourke asked him if he would tell the team for him. At the time, he was emotional and didn’t think he could tell the team himself. He wanted to be at the meeting, but Dahm told him that he should be with his parents as well as preparing for final exams.

Before Dahm told the team, O’Rourke walked in. He wanted to be around his teammates. After seven hours in a hospital, he wanted to be with his friends. Teammates initially thought that he was in trouble for being late to the meeting.

“Initially, I believe we were all taken back,” fellow Hawkeye pitcher, Austin Seward said.

He believes the cancer stigma is worse for people who do not have it and have to learn that people close to them have it. Personally, he felt helpless, but knew from then on he would be there for him throughout the process because he has been there as a good, competitive friend for the past three years.

“I believe staying positive and that’s only way I could approach the process of beating cancer,” Seward said. “I knew that being his bud was the only thing I could do to help.”

You just have to roll with the punches sometimes. That’s what I’ve done.

Although O’Rourke has not been able to compete this season, he’s still part of the Hawkeye baseball family.

“During chemo I tried to be there about twice a week,” O’Rourke said regarding the team’s practices. “I tried to be there as much as I could, on and off the field. I’ve tried to help the younger guys.”

During this time, he had a number of ups and downs. Chemotherapy would take a lot out of him, including the struggles of eating, being tired and weak, and having no motivation to do anything.

Although it’s been a difficult time for him, he would still find the strength to show up for practices and games. Wanting to be around his teammates is what has helped him get through the tough times.

“Coming to practice and games kind of takes your mind off it,” said O’Rourke. “Seeing guys work hard, that’s the thrill. It makes me want to come back and get into the game that much quicker.”

Dahm attributes O’Rourke’s mentality, toughness, and competitiveness to what’s allowed him to fight cancer. It is his competitive spirit that has been the reason for continuously coming back and not giving up. Although he can’t compete in games, he is still very much a part of the team and wants to do anything he can to help the team succeed.

“He felt bad, because he was there and he couldn’t work out with his teammates” Dahm said. “That’s called being a good teammate and not wanting to be treated differently. I thought he might overdo it at times. If he was there, he would at least play catch or do sprints. He didn’t want to show up at practice and not do anything.”

After a frustrating sophomore campaign, O’Rourke was able to bounce back during summer ball with the Thunder Bay Border Cats. He drove seven hours to his first game with the team in Eau Claire, Wis. and threw a shutout. The performance was unexpected by manager Chad Miller, but he was glad to see that the questions he had about O’Rourke were quickly answered.

After posting a league-leading 7-0 record with a 1.43 ERA, he was picked to play in the Northwoods League all-star game. At some point things just clicked for him. Summer ball allowed him to relax and work on the little things so he could fine tune his pitching.

“The Northwoods League is a place where these kids can come out and try to refine some things. Casey flourished in the environment,” Miller said. “He tweaked some of his mechanics which gave him the confidence he needed and allowed him to pick apart hitters. He is not a guy who overpowered hitters, but rather he dissected them with precision. He was able to keep hitters guessing with his ability to locate his fastball on both sides of the plate and throw his off-speed pitches for strikes.”

Through this environment and the success he was able to have, O’Rourke was able to gain the confidence that he needed when headed back to Iowa.

During fall practice, he looked to be in prime position for the team’s number one or two spot in the pitching rotation. He didn’t want to be second though. He wanted to be the number one starter.

While he was beginning to look like the player he was expected to be coming out of high school, he was then told that he had to sit out while he would be treated for testicular cancer.

“He has a mentality a lot of people can learn from, as well as his positively confident approach to life,” Seward said. “He has pushed me to be a better player and I am lucky to be a witness of him getting through his situation.”

After a quick 5-1 start to the season, the team headed down to San Antonio for the UTSA Tournament where their fortunes changed in a hurry. After dropping the first three games there, O’Rourke, who was with the team at the time, got up and spoke. He talked about how it’s only a game and to not take it for granted. This is where he has been able to help the program this year.

“It [O’Rourke’s situation] puts life into perspective,” Seward said. “Losing a game should be much easier than beating cancer. There is always a worse situation out there than what was happening with the team. I doubt anyone took his words for granted down there.”

He has a mentality a lot of people can learn from, as well as his positively confident approach to life. He has pushed me to be a better player and I am lucky to be a witness of him getting through his situation.
Teammate Austin Seward

Although the team doesn’t always want to resort to using Casey’s battle with cancer as motivation, it is reality. The situation has put things into perspective for many of the players as well as the coaches.

“Baseball’s just a game,” Dahm said. “Playing baseball’s not a bad thing, but don’t ever take it for granted.”

This is the message that he wants his players to realize. O’Rourke already cherishes the game more than ever. It’s what has helped him fight cancer. While the team was competing in the UTSA Tournament, during one game, he got on the mound with his bandana on and started throwing in the bullpen. Everyone just stopped, turned and looked and watched him.

“It gave me goosebumps,” Dahm said. “He was smiling. He was having fun. That was a neat experience to see him on the mound.”

It was the first instance when the coaches and players realized that he would be back. The fighter inside him was well and kicking. Since then, the feeling of wanting to be back on the mound has continued. The coaching staff and teammates have also been a motivator since the beginning. They treat him no differently than if he didn’t have cancer. When he’s in the bullpen, pitching coach, Nick Zumsande will get on him about hitting his spots. This helps bring O’Rourke back to what is normal for him.

The road to recovery has been difficult, but as O’Rourke puts it, “you just have to roll with the punches sometimes, that’s what I’ve done.”

After results came back following his third and final surgery, O’Rourke was told he was cancer-free. With all signs pointing toward a return in 2007, Coach Dahm couldn’t be happier. To keep him motivated, he’s always telling him, “I just can’t wait to see you on that mound again.”

For this season, the Hawkeyes have gained more from O’Rourke than he may ever know. The love for the game and resilience he has displayed has inspired the whole program.

Rather than competing in summer ball again this year, O’Rourke plans on taking the next few months to continue recovering. He’s hoping to learn more about baseball and himself. The drive to compete is still very high, but his outlook on life has changed.

“You just cherish the things and the people who are closest to you,” O’Rourke said. “You look forward to days a little bit more. Even if little things aren’t going right, or something goes wrong, you know you can always look back. I always look at the worst case scenario. I’ve been through the worst case and you look at things a little bit differently and just try to have more fun.”

By Joshua Mitchell, Iowa Sports Information