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Iowa players show support for 7-year-old cancer patient Gavin Springsteen

Seven-year-old Gavin Springsteen will be at Camping World Stadium on Monday, hoping his buddies on the Iowa Hawkeyes football team can pull out a victory against Tennessee in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl (1 p.m. (ESPN).

Gavin, who is from Rock Island, Ill., has a special bond with four of the Iowa players: linebacker/special teams player Jayden Montgomery, back-up receiver Jacob Bostick, starting defensive tackle Yayah Black and back-up quarterback Marco Lainez. They give Gavin an outlet from all the pain and worry and day-to-day treatments he endures as a cancer patient at the University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

Gavin was paired up with the Iowa players by an organization called Team IMPACT, which sponsored the family’s trip to Orlando. IMPACT is a non-profit organization that matches children facing serious illness and disability with college sports teams.

The players love the relationship they have formed with Gavin, and it allows them to take a break from their hectic football and academic responsibilities as well. They visit Gavin for fun with video games and board games, and just some good-natured ribbing.

“It has been awesome getting to know Gavin the last few months. He always has an amazing attitude and has a way of brightening everyone’s day around him,” said Montgomery. “I have had so much fun visiting with Gavin. It has meant everything to me. I’m glad I’m able to make a difference although I feel like Gavin has an even bigger impact on everyone around him.”

Gavin’s parents are extremely happy with the kindness displayed by the four players. It not only takes Gavin’s mind off things, but it also gives the parents a bit of stress relief.

“I remember one time, specifically, Gavin was very out of it, not talkative at all, just lying there. Didn’t want to play any games … nothing,” said Gavin’s dad, Michael Springsteen. “And the guys show up and he hops out of bed and instantly … they’re playing Nintendo. They’re just as competitive with him as he is with them. It’s just hilarious to watch. They’re all kind of talking trash to one another.

“They sometimes stay for two hours, and for those two hours he doesn’t remember that he’s sick. For us, as parents, it’s indescribable.”

Asked who was his favorite player, Gavin said, “Jayden,” but he loves all of them. “They just make me very happy.”

To which dad responded, “Uh oh, you’re probably going to make Jake mad.”

Gavin smiled. He’s an impressively happy child despite what he has had to endure.

He loves playing Nintendo’s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and he remains frustrated because he cannot beat Bostick in the 100 meters.

“I always try to beat Jake in the 100-meter dash, but somehow I can’t,” Gavin said.

He has frequent stays in the hospital, but remarkably, he loves going to the facility, which is in Iowa City, about an hour from his home. He likes it because, he said, all of the nurses and other support staff are very nice to him.

“And the volunteers,” Gavin said. “It feels good when I meet lots of new people and I actually get to know them a bit.”

“He gets mad when we have to leave because he loves it. He has so much fun there,” said his mother, Allie Springsteen. “The nurses are great. They play games. He gets warm blankets. He just sees all of the good in it and doesn’t concentrate on the bad.”

When Gavin was 4 years old, he became ill, with high fevers and other symptoms. After two weeks of testing, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer — stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma — which he has been battling ever since. He’s had five rounds of chemotherapy and even went through a stem-cell transplant.

“After the stem-cell transplant, he went into septic shock,” Allie Springsteen said. “We almost lost him after that.”

Doctors found that the relapse from the stem-cell treatment was due to Gavin having another rare condition. They found a mutant gene in Gavin’s DNA, which has obstructed some of the pathways to better health. The Springsteens said they are currently going through some clinical trials and are optimistic about the possible availability of some new treatments in the future.

They also travel to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where there is a neuroblastoma specialist.

“He’s off protocol [treatments] right now and kind of doing lots of different treatments just to see which one is going to be the one that works,” Allie said. “He’s relapsed twice and never been cancer-free in the three years he’s been doing treatment.

“But he’s fought through it all and he still has a smile on his face.”

Despite all of the chemo treatments and the needle pokes and everything else he has to deal with, Gavin remains upbeat and seems to take everything in stride, adapting to life the way he has to.

“I don’t mind being a little sick because then I get to go to the hospital,” Gavin said.

Yet he’s well aware of the pain and the struggle.

“It’s very hard,” Gavin said. “I get very scared sometimes.”

Gavin receives numerous medications and blood draws for testing and he is frequently being poked and prodded with needles. He also is tethered to a nutrients bag held by one of his parents, and it is connected to Gavin via a G tube.

“Yeah, I get lots of needles,” Gavin said. “I get arm needles; I get leg needles. I even have a port. Ports are easy, but shots and arm pokes, nuh uh.”

He’s optimistic that eventually doctors will find a cure for what ails him and he can go on living a normal life.

“I hope so,” he said, “because I hate being sick.”

He now has a port mechanism in his chest to make injections with needles much easier to take.

It’s not just Gavin the Springsteens care for. They have three other children: 13-year-old Tyler, 5-year-old Emma and 3-year-old Grace.

“He makes me laugh,” Gavin said, pointing at Tyler on Sunday during the interview at the Hyatt Regency in south Orlando, “but the other two, nuh uh. They annoy me. … The older sister, that’s the one that annoys me the most.”

“He said one of his favorite parts of this trip was the peace and quiet away from his sisters,” said his father.

The youngest Springsteen, Grace, came along two weeks after Gavin turned ill. So the Springsteens were dealing with COVID, Gavin’s illness and, suddenly, Allie giving birth to Grace at the same time.

“We were at the hospital, in-patient,” Michael said, “and she went in the bathroom then came back out and said, ‘My water broke.’ … Chaos ensued that night.”

All along, Tyler and his sisters have endured all of the attention that goes tto Gavin. Tyler tries to entertain himself when his parents are busy with his brother. Tyler joined the family on the trip to Orlando. He said video games and sports allow him to break off from the family routine with Gavin.

“There’s a lot of travel back-and-forth, but luckily we do home school so school isn’t really a problem,” Tyler said. “And we don’t have to stay at my house the whole time. We can go to grandma’s house and we can do school there. So, at least it’s calmer and not as hard.

“One. year I had to go in-person school, so then we had to stay at my house the whole time and it was kind of stressful for grandma and stuff. This is more relaxed.”

The family left an ice storm in Illinois, where there was a low of 27 degrees and a Winter Advisory on Saturday, to fly to Orlando where it was unseasonably cold with a low of 40. But that was just fine to Gavin and the Springsteens. “I’m very happy about that,” Gavin said.

As he continues to go through treatments and medications, the Springsteens remain hopeful.

“There is optimism. New treatments are coming along, trials, things like that,” Michael said.

They’re just happy Gavin is still with them.

“When he was first diagnosed, they said that there was like a 40 to 50 percent chance of survival,” Allie said.

But yet Gavin is still among them and they are overly grateful for each day they awake to see their smiling son.

“Our mantra just sorta became one day at a time,” Michael said. “Here we are three years later. That’s a lot of one days at a time, but it doesn’t even feel like three years has passed, if I’m being honest with you. It feels like yesterday.”

Chris Hays covers high school and college football, as well as college football recruiting. He can be found on X @OS_ChrisHays and on Instagram @OS_ChrisHays. He can be reached via email at chays@orlandosentinel.com.