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They've got his back: River Falls athlete not alone in cancer fight

A picture of Tanner Kelm in his football uniform sits on a table during a fundraiser at a Wildcat basketball game this past February. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia. 1 / 5
River Falls High School senior Tanner Kelm throws out the ceremonial first pitch to all ten of the Wildcat seniors before the Cats' Strikeout Cancer game Saturday, May 4 at First National Bank of River Falls Field. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 5
River Falls students cheer for the Wildcat basketball team while wearing shirts supporting Tanner Kelm and his family shortly after Tanner Kelm was diagnosed with cancer. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 5
Hudson boys' basketball coach John Dornfeld and the Raider bench sport T-shirts supporting River Falls senior Tanner Kelm during the Raider basketball game in River Falls this season. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 5
Hudson football coach Adam Kowles, left, and River Falls coach David Crail chat as the two give blood during a blood drive in honor of River Falls senior Tanner Kelm in Hudson Monday, May 6. The Hudson football team and its supporters have sponsored a number of fundraisers under the motto, “Football Makes Us Family,” in support of the Kelm family. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 5 / 5

As an offensive lineman on the River Falls football team, senior Tanner Kelm is used to having his teammates' backs. Now he's got teammates, opponents, classmates, and people he doesn't even know covering his.

Kelm has been undergoing treatment for Ewing's sarcoma, a form of cancer that affects the bones and the tissue surrounding the bones, since January. His treatment has included chemotherapy treatments every other week that require hospital stays of 3 to 5 days each visit.

After hearing about the diagnosis it didn't take long for his classmates at River Falls to rally around Kelm, his parents Jason and Sue, and sister Gaby, selling things like T-shirts and bracelets and window decals to help pay for his treatment. Today that support has spread to virtually every community in the Big Rivers Conference, and even included a shout-out from NFL superstar and former Wisconsin Badger J.J. Watt.

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"It means a lot," Kelm said after throwing out the first pitch before the Wildcat baseball team's Strikeout Cancer game Saturday, May 4, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. "It's crazy to think about what people will do for strangers."

The diagnosis

Kelm was a starting offensive lineman on the Wildcat football team that won its first conference championship in 23 years this season. On Sept. 28, after the Cats beat Chippewa Falls for their sixth win of the season, Kelm limped off the field with what he thought was a groin injury. He played the remaining four games of the season but when the pain hadn't dissipated by December he decided to see a doctor.

Tanner Kelm throws out the first pitch at Cats' Strikeout Cancer game May 4. Photo by Bob BurrowsAfter physical therapy failed to address the issue, Kelm had an MRI on Jan. 10 and the next day got the news that doctors had found a mass in his pelvis, along with about 20 other spots, that was most likely cancer. A biopsy confirmed it as Ewings's sarcoma.

"It was a shock," Kelm said about the diagnosis. "But there was a lot of support from people right away and a lot of people saying that it was going to be alright. It was a big shock, but that made it better."

What can we do?

Immediately, Kelm's classmates at River Falls sprang into action.

"My friend just told me, Sofia, we should make T-shirts, because a ton of different ideas were popping up in the community about what we could do to help Tanner," fellow senior Sofia Naranjo Mata said. "And I thought it would be a great idea, not only would it raise money for the Kelms it would show our unity with everyone showing Tanner some support."

Senior Autumn Gray decided to sell bracelets bearing the motto "No One Fights Alone."

River Falls students cheer for the Wildcat basketball team while wearing shirts supporting Tanner Kelm. Photo by Bob Burrows

"Me and Tanner have been close friends since eighth grade," Gray said. "A couple of years ago his aunt died from cancer and they had bracelets with the same saying. So I came up with the idea to use that saying on his bracelets because I know that meant a lot to their family."

Soon, Chippewa Falls senior football player Rico DeLeon, who had gone toe-to-toe against Kelm in their Sept. 28 game, heard about the effort and spearheaded a fundraiser at the Cardinals' boys' basketball game against the Wildcats Feb. 21. And Hudson boys' basketball coach John Dornfeld and the entire Raider staff and bench wore the t-shirts supporting Kelm at their game against the Wildcats in River Falls Feb. 23.

Hudson football mom Lynda Miller decided to do even more. With the help of her son Jake, a junior Raider quarterback, they organized players and other football supporters in Hudson and adopted the slogan "Football Makes Us Family." They sold bracelets bearing the motto, held a meat raffle that raised over $3,000 and sponsored a blood drive Monday May 6 in honor of Kelm. Miller also pulled some strings to get J.J. Watt send Kelm a video expressing his support.

"I have three boys that grew up with the Hudson-River Falls rivalry," she said. "So I thought, what are we going to do? In my heart 'Football Makes us Family' came to mind. It's a lot bigger than the rivalry on the field. It just made sense to me."

Hudson football coach Adam Kowles agreed.

"I think it even enhances the rivalry when you can do things like this and realize that off the field we can do anything we can possibly do to help other people and other teams," he said. "No matter how we are on the field, there's something about this group of football players across the country and across the state that, we are all in this together, and what can we do to benefit everybody?"

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River Falls coach David Crail joined Kowles at Monday's blood drive and said the response from the state's football community has been overwhelming.

"I think it says a lot about the teams that we play and the people that make up those teams," Crail said. "I think I speak for all the coaches of these teams (that) this is the reason why we're in education. It's to impact kids and to show them that they can truly make a difference. And this is truly making a difference. You're helping people and showing support and giving people support at a time when they need it the most. And everyone of these communities—Hudson, Chipp, all down the line from Memorial to Superior—it's been truly remarkable the way that people have stepped up to say, we're here for you in your greatest time of need. And I know that Tanner's family truly appreciates that."

Moving forward

So far, a Go Fund Me page for Kelm has raised nearly $12,000, in addition to the money raised from T-shirt and bracelet sales. Kelm said the financial support for his family has been huge, but the effort goes much deeper than that.

"My parents' friends and my friends do a lot for us and there's always somebody around," he said. "School has been super helpful, like letting out some of the guys for a day to come up and see me at the hospital. So there's a lot of moral support in addition to the financial."

Despite the rigorous treatments, Kelm has been able to spend time with his friends and make it to all but one of his sister Gaby's soccer games. He even attended last week's prom where his date, Amelia Hadzima, was crowned queen.

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"That was great," he said. "It's was a lot of fun seeing everybody."

Kelm said his latest PET scan shows his main tumor had shrunk from 13 centimeters down to three. "So that's a huge step," he said. If his good reports continue he'll start six weeks of daily radiation treatment May 13 in addition to continuing with chemotherapy.

"If we stay on track, treatments should be done right around mid to late August or early September," he said.

And nothing will stop him from receiving his diploma at graduation. At the time of his diagnosis in January it was the end of the school's second term and he was just two credits shy of the number needed to graduate.

"But the school waved it and just said what I've done so far is good enough to graduate," he said. "So I'm on track and should be out of the hospital to walk at graduation. I've already got my gown."

After that he has plans to attend Iowa State University.

"Whether or not that's this winter or next fall all depends on the treatment," he said.

Kilkarney Fundraiser May 18

A benefit for Kelm will be held Saturday, May 18, at Kilkarney Hills Golf Course with a golf tournament and bean bag tournament beginning at 2 p.m., dinner from 5-7 p.m., a silent auction from 5-8 p.m. and live auction at 8 p.m.

Golf is $50 per person and the bean bag tournament is $25 per person while dinner is $25 each. For more information visit

It's just the latest in the tidal wave of support Kelm is receiving in his cancer fight.

"It's been amazing," he said.

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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