Gophers freshman wrestles for young pal with cancer

Greco Roman Bouzakis poses with a wrestling championship belt at the family home in Lutz, Fla. The 5-year-old, who has a rare form of terminal brain stem cancer, befriended Gophers wrestler Larry Early III through social media.

Chris O'Meara/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — Larry Early III is redshirting his first year at Minnesota. He still has a whole lot to wrestle for.

Since he met Greco Roman Bouzakis, Early has rarely lacked motivation.

University of Minnesota freshman Larry Early, who is redshirting on the Gophers wrestling team, still has a lot to wrestle for. His 5-year-old friend from Florida, Greco Roman Bouzakis, has an inoperable form of cancer.

"He’s gotten me extremely grateful for my life," Early said of his improbable 5-year-old pal who has a rare, inoperable form of cancer. "I’m just trying to use my athletic ability and my image, basically, to support him and use it for good. I know he loves it."

The friendship was struck through social media last year, when Early was a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois, just west of Chicago.

For a business class fundraising competition, Early’s group needed an idea. The day before the project began, Early favorited a post in his Instagram feed that had been circulating to help Greco’s cause. So the decision was made, and the students collected close to $3,000 over three weeks after Early sent the Bouzakis family a message to inform it of the effort.

"There was an instant connection," said Greco’s mother, Toni Bouzakis.

Initial communication with Greco was made primarily through Skype sessions. At his final competition as a high school wrestler — the junior nationals in Fargo, North Dakota — Early dedicated his performance to Greco. He became the 152-pound freestyle champion with the Bouzakis family watching at home in Tampa, Florida, via webcast.

"I really dominated everybody. That was all for him," Early said. "Honestly, if I didn’t meet him or anything, I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t have won, but I would say that I would’ve wrestled more hesitantly."

Toni Bouzakis, left, and her son Greco Roman hold a wrestling trophy at their home in Lutz, Fla., that was given to them in 2015 by Gophers wrestler Larry Early. The 5-year-old has a rare form of terminal brain stem cancer found in children.

The trophy, naturally, went straight to Greco. It’s at the Bouzakis house with other memorabilia from the family’s success on the mat.

In November, Early and Greco got the chance to see each other in person. One of Greco’s older brothers had a junior tournament in Troy, New York, and Minnesota was competing in the Northeast Duals at the same time and place. As a redshirt, Early was only along for the ride, but during a workout with the Gophers one day that weekend, he looked up and saw Greco walk in the room.

"Probably the best hug I’ve had in my life," Early said.

Greco, named for one of the two major styles of wrestling, has a terminal condition called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, the same cancer that Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, had when he died in November at age 5. The tumor in the middle of Greco’s brainstem was discovered after he developed a crossed eye while attending a wrestling camp. Since the diagnosis on Aug. 4, 2013, Greco has already lived more than 19 months past the initial estimate.

Greco has been receiving radiation treatment. He had eye surgery in December. But he’s still hanging in there.

Team Greco, which includes Greco’s brothers Nick (12) and Vince (9) and sister Jaclyn (7) among other area youth, participates in roughly 100 matches per year all over the country. Greco attends about half of them.

Toni Bouzakis and her son Greco Roman hold a wrestling trophy at their home in Lutz, Fla., that was autographed and given to them in 2015 by Gophers wrestler Larry Early. The duo met through social media and have been improbable pals for the past year.

"When we’re at tournaments, he doesn’t sit with mom, he sits with the team," Toni Bouzakis said. "He’s in their laps. Everybody loves him. It’s really sweet because they know they’re there wrestling for Greco. It’s a little more than, `Oh, let’s win this tournament.’ It’s a little bit about doing something bigger for somebody that’s little."

Greco’s father, Troy Bouzakis, is a former high school state champion in New York and college wrestler at Clemson who has been coaching the kids.

"Once you get knocked down on your knees, you basically have the ability to get right back up," he said. "Wrestling provides that vehicle to make sure you continue to move forward regardless of the obstacle."

Focusing on living, rather than dwelling on the disease, has been the best antidote. Early’s support and friendship has been a big boost, too.

"It’s interesting, a bond between some guy that lives so far away, a young adult, friends with this little kid," Toni Bouzakis said. "It really is different. But it’s a good thing. I’m glad that he’s come into our lives. He means a lot to us, and I think Greco means a lot to Larry as well."