He’s invited to pose for a photo. He agrees, then he turns to ask, “How’s my hair?”
And Mason Stajduhar laughs.
He’s got some fuzz on his scalp and the beginning of a mustache. He brushes his head with the palm of his hand. He’s still getting used to his hair.
It was only a few weeks ago when he was on FaceTime with his girlfriend, Isabel, and she noticed a light line above his right eye. Was that hair? Mason rushed to the mirror, leaned in close, and there it was. An eyebrow. Or the start of one. He grinned.
His teammates are still getting used to his hair. Only a matter of weeks ago he was standing in goal at Orlando City soccer practice, his bald head shining and sweaty and obvious in the Florida sun.
He didn’t want to let on how tired he was, or the specifics of his day: wake up two hours away in Gainesville at 6:30 a.m., go through radiation treatments, drive to Orlando, go through training, shower, drive back to Gainesville, and go through more radiation treatments. Mason wanted to be treated normally, and not with pity.
So Dom Dwyer and his teammates fired away at the 20-year-old keeper with bone cancer.
Blasts of radiation, blasts of soccer balls, blasts of radiation. That’s how he spent a good part of his spring. It was no big deal until he really thought about what it took. He describes it all as if it was a crazy scene from Fortnite, or an afternoon trying to get some shopping done during a thunderstorm. Only when he goes back to the beginning, to the pain, is when his expression darkens and those light eyebrows lower.
It was almost exactly a year ago. He planted his foot on a throw and he felt it. It was sharp – in his left leg below the knee. It persisted. He got it checked. The trainer thought it was nothing. Mason thought it was nothing. Eventually he went to the doctor, who also thought it was nothing.
The pain got worse, until walking was a chore. He was 19; this was not normal. He got a CT scan. There was a white spot.
They waited a few weeks and looked again. It was growing.
His doctor still thought it was nothing.
They took a biopsy early in November and there was 48 hours of waiting. Then he got a call, just as he was moving apartments, and it wasn’t nothing. It was anything but nothing.
Stajduhar had Ewing’s Sarcoma. He would need a port inserted in only a few days. He would be on chemo before Thanksgiving.
He didn’t know it at the time, but at his age, the long-term prognosis wasn’t great. There was just north of a 50-50 chance of survival, statistically. That part wasn’t on his mind. He thought only about soccer, and the possibility that his career was over. He couldn’t play for months, in the best case. “Panic set in,” he says.
He called Isabel, his high school sweetheart who is a student at the University of Florida. She could hear it right away in his voice. He’d been crying. She began to cry too.
There was good news: the cancer hadn’t spread. But there was a choice to be made. He could have surgery to extract the tumor or he could get radiation. Surgery, and knee reconstruction, brought a higher risk to his career. Radiation brought a slightly higher risk to his chance of long-term survival. His parents, back in Connecticut where he grew up, were vexed by it. His mom is a nurse, so she understood better than most. Let’s face it, a lot of people, even most people, would have the surgery if it gave them even the slimmest advantage over the long term.
“For me it was an easy decision,” Mason says.
He chose radiation.
Stajduhar certainly didn’t have to participate in any team activities during his treatment. He’s was the goalkeeper of the future, not the starter. He could have stayed in Gainesville, with his girlfriend, and gone through all the chemo and radiation with the full blessing of every single teammate, coach, executive and fan.
Nope. He wanted to train. He had been a goalkeeper since he was a little boy – “since they had goals big enough to play goal,” he says. He was going to stay a goalkeeper.
You can imagine what a two-hour commute is like with a normal desk job. Now add depleting radiation at the start of that day, and again at the end, with elite-level practice in the Florida heat in the middle. His doctors insisted that he not dive after any ball, for fear of a bone break or worse. So he avoided live action drills and did what he could. He ate breakfast in a rush and lunch in a rush, blaring music and sipping coffee in his Dodge Charger as he sailed up the Florida Turnpike on his way back north in time for his second radiation therapy. He was usually asleep by 9 p.m. This went on for five weeks.
“I was exhausted,” he says, “I’d get into the radiation machine and fall instantly asleep.”
To the rest of the people in his world, it was fairly astounding. “It was shocking, actually,” says teammate and fellow goalkeeper Adam Grinwis.
To Mason, it was never a question.
“It’s the standard, the expectation I have for myself,” he says.
There were moments when Grinwis would look over and see Stajduhar bent over, out of breath. Florida weather, with the goalie gear on and the heat of the turf, is, well, “You never really get used to it,” Grinwis says.
But Mason never asked out. “If anything,” Grinwis says, “coaches had to tailor it for him.”
In late June, Stajduhar walked into Unit 42 of the Pediatric Cancer Center at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, and rang the bell. His treatment was over. Then, last month, after listening to a motivational speech by a former All-Blacks captain with his Orlando teammates, Stajduhar got into his Charger and got a call from the club’s athletic trainer. He was cleared to play.
The tears came again.
The year has already been enough of a victory, but Mason wants more. He’s never played in an MLS match. He wants that chance and he wants it this season.
“When I started this whole process, with my treatments,” he says, “I made it my goal to play this year. So I want to see that through.”
He’s still on injured reserve so, in a way, his season is already over. But who’s gonna tell him? On his left leg, he has the scar from the biopsy and a tattoo of the date of his completion of treatment. That’s the life equivalent of a Clean Sheet.
He is 20. He is a pro soccer player. He is a bone cancer survivor.
And his hair looks perfect.