Thurmond a real hometown hero

West Covina football coach Mike Maggiore sent me this incredible story about former Bulldog Walter Thurmond IV, now an Oregon Ducks defensive back. Please click the thread and read, it will make you proud.

By George Schroeder

Register-Guard columnist

Published: Dec 14, 2008 08:51AM
Sports: Home: Story

NEWBERG — When it came time to name the pet, there wasn’t any doubt, and no hesitation.

The Chinese fighting fish was small, lean and aggressive, and the name just fit, though he isn’t sure why. Andrew Meinert called it Walter Thurmond IV.

What does a fish mean? A lot when you’re 16 and you’re trying to beat this aggressive cancer that came from nowhere. Plenty when you’re spending months in a strange city, hundreds of miles from home, getting treatment after surgeons removed an egg-sized tumor from your brain.

What does a visit by the fish’s namesake mean? A lot when you’re 17 and you’re spending your days in bed, unable to leave home. Plenty when you’re trying not to think about how the cancer suddenly reappeared, and hit you “like a bullet train.”

Everything when you recognize that this second time around, the disease does not intend to be beaten. And as you follow the instructions you received from Walter Thurmond III:

“Keep fighting.”

Why do certain athletes become our favorites? It’s as hard to explain, maybe, as why we’re devoted to their teams.

Andrew Meinert has been an Oregon fan for longer than he can remember. It was inevitable, since he comes from a family of Ducks. His father and mother and brother graduated from UO, and an uncle ran for Bill Bowerman on two NCAA championship teams, and the family has had season tickets and the same tailgating spot southwest of Autzen Stadium forever.

A couple of years ago, Andrew decided he liked the way Thurmond played. More than that, something about the name caught his fancy. The Roman numerals probably had something to do with it, but Andrew’s not really sure. It just happened. There’s no explanation.

Kind of like everything else for a once-healthy teenager lying in a darkened bedroom, numb from the waist down, unable to use his right eye, unable to see a way out.

“Pretty heavy stuff,” says Matt Meinert, Andrew’s older brother.

Understand, the Meinerts are hoping and praying. Many others are, too. Encouragement and support have come from everywhere in this close-knit community, and no one is giving up.

But when Thurmond called and told Andrew’s father he’d like to visit, Mark Meinert was astonished. So was everyone. It’s 100 miles from Eugene to Newberg, and an Oregon football player was coming to see his son?

Well, no. Actually, two Oregon football players were coming to visit. Patrick Chung came along that Friday afternoon last month.

“It was amazing,” Andrew says. “It was very, very cool. Just to see their presence and feel their presence. Just to be in the same room with them for a while, that was pretty cool.”

Some things you should know about Andrew: He’s the “caboose” of the family, born 18 years after his sister, 20 years after his brother. He’s smart and funny, and he’s a good tennis player, too.

A year ago, when Andrew began his junior year at Newberg High School, he was thinking of attending Oregon, or maybe going into the Air Force, and life looked pretty good.

Then one day, he had a seizure, though he didn’t know that’s what it was. He came downstairs and told his father he didn’t feel well, and they noticed his head was bruised and his cheek was scraped. They went to the doctor, and an MRI stunned everyone.

An egg-sized tumor was growing inside Andrew’s skull. The terrible diagnosis was glioblastoma multiforme. It’s an especially aggressive form of cancer, and the survival rate is very low.

But last December — it will be a year ago on Thursday — surgeons in San Francisco removed the entire tumor. And after three months of chemotherapy and focused radiation, everything looked great.

Andrew returned home, resumed his normal life. He worked his way into an integral role on Newberg High’s varsity tennis team. Periodic checkups went well, and everything seemed fine.

In late August, the family spent a week at the beach. They tailgated together, as always, at Oregon’s season opener against Washington. Andrew’s girlfriend came along.

“It was a great six, seven, eight months,” his father says.

But about then, Andrew’s shoulder started hurting. They went to the doctor, had more tests done. On Sept. 12, the same day Andrew’s sister Amy gave birth to little Sofie, they got the bad news.

Another tumor had been discovered in Andrew’s brain. Also, the cancer had spread to several spots on his spinal cord. Further surgery was not an option. After another round of chemotherapy and radiation, the tumors had grown, and another was discovered on his brain stem.

The slide has been quick, and steep. They’ve tried some alternative medicines, and Andrew is undergoing a different kind of chemotherapy. If the tumor stops growing, he might be able to participate in clinical trials.

“We’re trying to buy some time,” Andrew’s father says, and everyone has remained relentlessly positive.

Area businesses have held fundraisers, and an account has been set up at a local bank. His classmates at Newberg High School have made him their senior project, selling wristbands that read “Andy Meinert,” and T-shirts that read “there’s strong” on the front, and “& then there’s ANDY STRONG” on the back.

Andrew has a steady stream of visitors, so many the family has to turn some away. But three weeks ago came a visit no one expected, and no one will forget.

Family friends made some calls, and eventually someone got through, and told Oregon assistant athletic director James Harris of a very sick teenager who might be encouraged by a visit from his favorite player.

“I’ll go tomorrow,” Thurmond told Harris. And Patrick Chung piped up: “I’ll go, too.”

Understand, Thurmond had never done anything like this before. Neither player had ever been to Newberg. And this was the week before the Civil War, when the Ducks had a rare weekend off.

“I just wanted to help out,” Thurmond says. “We had a bye week. We didn’t have any other priorities, so Patrick and me just drove up there.”

The first thing Thurmond and Chung did, right out in the driveway, was hug Andrew’s mom, Anne. They spent a half-hour, or maybe 45 minutes, sitting on each side of Andrew’s bed. They held his hands and chatted, told him to keep on fighting.

Andrew told Thurmond how his sister had bought the fighting fish, back when he was undergoing treatment in San Francisco, and how he named it Walter Thurmond IV.

“That was good,” Walter Thurmond III says. “I was impressed.”

Also, Andrew related that the fish hadn’t made it — “It kind of died,” he said, chuckling — but that wasn’t such a bad thing, because Walter Thurmond IV was again available for Walter Thurmond III’s future use.

Andrew told them, “I’d love it if you’d beat those Beavers,” and Thurmond and Chung said, “We’re gonna do that.” He told Thurmond, “Hey, get an interception for me,” and Thurmond said he’d try.

Before the players left that afternoon, Thurmond unfolded a green Oregon jersey, autographed right on the No. 6. It hangs on a wall in Andrew’s bedroom, along with two Duck football posters, as many pennants and a metal sign: “Reserved Parking, Oregon Only, No Beavers or Dawgs allowed.”

A week later, Andrew listened to the Civil War on the radio — he didn’t feel like joining the crowd in the other room. Late in the first half, Thurmond stole Lyle Moevao’s pass and returned it for a touchdown, perhaps the most important play in Oregon’s 65-38 win.

When the game was over, they wheeled Andrew into the living room and replayed the interception, and he remembers, “it was pretty cool.”

The Meinerts are still shaking their heads over the interception, and also over the Ducks’ incredible act of kindness.

“It was a very special moment for me,” Thurmond says. “It really meant a lot.”

“It was real positive,” Chung recalls.

But maybe they don’t know how special, how meaningful, and how positive. Do you understand what the visit meant to a boy who is battling for his life? Do you know what it meant to a family watching a loved one slip away?

For much of the day, the Meinerts take turns holding Andrew’s hand, talking with him.

“We’re just trying to love him,” says Matt, the big brother, and there’s not much else they can do.

As Andrew keeps fighting, they all cling to each other, and to hope. And also, to happy memories.

Like a fish called Walter. And a visit from its namesake.

Donations can be made to the Andrew C. Meinert Medical Donation account at Key Bank, 1815 Portland Road, Newberg, OR 97132.

Facebook Twitter Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email