Nothing hurts more to an athlete than being unable to play the game they love. It can get even worse if a player is diagnosed with a life threatening illness. For Sam Kohnke, it became all too real in the past year. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer in the lymphatic system, last summer, he worked his way back in only six months, driven by his competitive spirit.
Since he was old enough to walk, Sam has loved the game of baseball. The pitcher/catcher from Nicolet High School came up in a great situation, thanks to the Glendale Little League (Wisconsin State Champions). Through eight years of playing together with essentially the same team, they not only wanted to win in high school, but for each other.
“We just loved the game of baseball, so it was awesome to be out there everyday, just playing with your buddies,” said Kohnke.
Individually, Kohnke shined in high school. As a junior he earned first team all-state in the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association poll, NOW All-Suburban, first team All-North Shore Conference, and second-team Milwaukee Journal Sentinel All-Area honors as a pitcher. He went 9-1 as a starter with a 1.27 ERA, striking out 46 batters in 55 innings, while also batting .413 with 35 RBI. He followed it up by earning second-team WBCA honors, NOW All-Suburban, and first team All-North Shore Conference as a senior. In his senior year, Kohnke batted .462 with 34 runs scored, nine doubles, one triple, seven home runs and 34 RBI.
Although he was one of the top players in the area for two straight years, Sam saw little collegiate recruiting interest. He garnered a few Division III offers, but he did not fall in love with any of them. He ended up enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he hoped to walk onto their baseball program. He was essentially “redshirted” as a freshman. He did not like Whitewater, and ended up transferring back to Milwaukee.
A few things drove Kohnke back to his hometown. One was the baseball. Although he would have to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, the UWM coaches knew of him and welcomed him to the team.
The other reason was for academics. Kohnke, a graphic design major, was looking for a much stronger program than Whitewater. Milwaukee is one of the top programs in the state. It was a homecoming waiting to happen.
“I thought that if I didn’t love the baseball aspect of Whitewater, it wasn’t worth it to be there for the schooling because I knew Milwaukee had a better program,” Kohnke recollects. “So I came back here for the baseball, as well as my degree, and just to be closer to home.”
It’s not everyday you find a graphic design major who is also an NCAA Division 1 athlete. Being a student-athlete is already incredibly time-consuming with practice and games, but adding on the countless hours of work of his major is an even bigger challenge.
“We spend a lot of days on the road, which is tough for everyone academically. My classes don’t necessarily revolve around tests that require hours of studying, but more around projects that require hours of visual reworking. I’ve had my fair share of long nights in front of the computer designing. This makes you appreciate the home games,” said Kohnke.
Sam, the son of parents who owned an advertising agency, was born into the life. He followed the footsteps of his father who is a creative director/art director, and grew up loving the work. With that passion for design, the program at Milwaukee was a no brainer.
In his first season of action after sitting out a year, Kohnke appeared in eight games. We went 4 for 10 at the plate and scored seven runs.
Everything changed for Sam on August 6, 2014 when he received the diagnosis that he had lymphoma. Although he had been working out all summer, he started to develop fatigue, his lymph nodes started swelling and he had night sweats. He was initially treated with a few weeks of antibiotics. When it didn’t go away, a biopsy confirmed Hodgskin’s lymphoma.
“You never think that it could happen to you, let alone someone you know or a friend. It was quite a shock,” stated Kohnke. “Then everything goes 100 miles an hour and you get three surgeries in a week just to properly diagnose it. So you’re in shock obviously.”
However, Kohnke’s determination and focus helped him stay calm in a situation that would scare most people.
“I never doubted that I could get through it. I knew it would be a struggle and a long road, but it was just more of positive vibes and having no doubt that you could conquer what seemed unconquerable,” he said.
One of the biggest advantages Sam had in his corner was the support of his team, who supported him every step of the way. It was a struggle at first to tell the team the news, so he sat all of them down to tell them.
Once he did tell them, it was nothing but love from everyone. The coaching staff understood his struggle, and accommodated him anyway that they could. Sam’s teammates had his back through it all and gave him all their support when he needed them.
By the first of September he was in chemotherapy. With the treatments knocking his body down, Kohnke wasn’t able to work out or practice with the team, but he still used baseball as a motivation to get through the treatment.
“I wanted to get better, to get back,” said Sam on how he used baseball as a motivational focus to get healthy.
Sam had eight chemo treatments over the course of four months from August through December, followed by another month of radiation therapy in January. It timed out well for him as he only missed the first couple games, and then was back on the field with his team.
“It was a blessing, because I was so thankful to be there and gotten through what I had gotten through,” said Kohnke on getting back to the field. “It felt great to get back to practicing and playing. I found a greater appreciation for the game of baseball after being through what I had.”
However, after missing the fall and winter workouts, Kohnke was a bit behind his teammates going into the year.
“It definitely was a setback going into the year because everyone puts in so much work in the fall and the winter. Not to be a part of that is tough,” said Kohnke of his return. “So I feel like I was doing a lot of catching up to get back to where everyone else was.”
Although Sam is playing with depth at catcher this season, his playing isn’t his focus.
“I’m just trying to help the team out in any way that I can,” said Kohnke on his goals going into the 2015 season. “I’m here to support the team. Whatever they need me to do. Hopefully I get an opportunity to show what I got. Feels good to be back.”
Once the season ends, Kohnke will be one of the 14 seniors on Milwaukee’s team graduating. He already accepted a job with an advertising agency in Milwaukee, with his ultimate goal to be an art director.
For others who must go down the road, Sam Kohnke has some advice and self-reflection on his journey.
“It’s important to stay positive. I never doubted that I could come back from it. There are definitely hard times. I think it’s just keeping your head down and trying to get through the next thing and always focusing on the present. It is interesting that once you get diagnosed with something large like that, it does change your perspective on life. It makes little things a little more important and little moments a little more special. I think I am a better person because of it and want to instill that gratitude for life in others.”