Maryville assistant soccer coach fighting to stay alive

ST. LOUIS — Growing up in Waterloo, Ill., he would often stand with his back to his grandfather’s barn and throw a soccer ball half filled with water over his head and onto the metal roof.

“It would go everywhere,” Joel Roschnafsky says. “It was like a knuckler.”

The goalkeeper was short (couldn’t touch the crossbar) and slow (that’s why he became a goalkeeper in the first place). But he would throw and wait … then turn, trying to make the catch as the ball shot off the roof at an unknown angle.

He laughs at himself now, years later, comparing the odd drill to a soccer-themed scene from “Hoosiers.” But the barn and the ball made him better, the same way the conditioning programs and footwork drills he jots down in a notepad will make the Maryville University women’s soccer team better.

“This stuff, the practice planning, that’s my favorite part,” the assistant coach says, pointing to the recently scribbled outline sitting on the coffee table of his Kirkwood, Mo., home.

There is something good about having a plan.

A man whose life has been turned upside-down can appreciate something that offers some control.

Indigestion, he thought when his stomach started hurting about two months ago. He eventually scheduled an appointment with his family doctor, then left for Napa Valley with his wife, Sasha, to celebrate their one-year anniversary.

Maybe an ulcer, he figured when he vomited after eating an In-N-Out burger the last day of their trip. He met with the doctor upon his return, and was referred to a gastroenterologist.

At worst a gallbladder problem, he told Sasha when the pain and swelling in his abdomen made him go to the emergency room at Missouri Baptist Medical Center before his visit with the specialist arrived.

It was June 13, the same day Sasha had previously scheduled her own visit to the hospital; she was going to have a pre-pregnancy talk with a physician since the couple had decided they would try to have a child soon.

There had been a potential diagnosis, one the couple had ignored when searching his symptoms online. It was too scary, and he, 33, was too healthy and too young.

But when doctors drained 4.5 liters of fluid from his stomach, they found a mass. The biopsy that followed the next day delivered the blow. The seemingly unimaginable was true.

He was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer. The disease spread from his tumor into his blood, reaching his lymph nodes and the outer lining of other organs. As an oncologist phrased it, the horse was out of the barn. He was told the five-year survival rate was in the single digits.

“Basically, and you don’t want to say it, but I’ve been handed a death sentence,” Roschnafsky says.

He has every reason to be angry.

This isn’t supposed to happen to people his age. He’s been called a “baby” by doctors, because most people diagnosed with stomach cancer are between 60 and 80.

And hasn’t the Roschnafsky family already been through enough? His mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. His father found out he had Parkinson’s disease a year ago. They are supposed to be preparing for grandkids, not this.

Ask yourself a question, and be honest.

How would you respond?

Roschnafsky hasn’t wasted a drop of energy trying to determine why life, like a soccer ball on a roof, sometimes takes an unfair turn.

Instead he did what comes naturally, and made a plan.

“I think about it like a sports analogy,” he says. “If I just go on with my daily life, I’m not going to win this thing. I’ve got to win every day. And then I’ve got to win every week. And then every month.”

The plan is concise, yet far from simple.

Roschnafsky is going to fight like hell to stay alive.

They’ve circled the wagons around one of their own.

“It’s been amazing,” Sasha Roschnafsky says. “We didn’t expect this much support. We knew we had a lot of close friends, but everyone has been so supportive. People that we don’t even know.”

Her husband has been a staple at Maryville for 14 years. He arrived at the NCAA Division II school in St. Louis to play goalie and study physical therapy. He never really left. For the past decade, he has balanced his physical therapy work with some sort of a coaching role at Maryville. He started by helping his former team, then became an assistant to the women’s coach, Eric Delabar.

The two, Delabar and Roschnafsky, talk every day. The head coach has watched his assistant brace this challenge.

“His personality, his ability to see things better than most, his ability to find any situation and find good in it, those are some of the things I have learned from him,” Delabar says. “Those things have hopefully made me a better person. The glass is always half full with Joel.”

“I’m close to 60 years old, and I’ve learned a lot about life from this kid. I think everyone can, because of his outlook, of his demeanor.”

He and others have looked for ways to help, and their efforts have shown Roschnafsky’s importance to not only the Maryville family, but the tight-knit soccer community that exists in St. Louis.

Phone calls, Facebook messages, texts and cards from former teammates have streamed in. Roschnafsky has heard from area soccer legends Jeff Cacciatore, Dan O’Keefe and Al Trost. Rubber wristbands inscribed with the words “No One Fights Alone” have been distributed to hundreds. And then there’s this: A website a friend launched to raise money for medical expenses has raised $21,000 and counting in less than three weeks.

“The St. Louis soccer community is a tight group, and we take care of our people,” Delabar says. “That’s what’s happening here.”

He pulls his shirt collar down and exposes the plastic port stuck into the right side of his chest, the place cancer-killing chemicals enter his body during chemotherapy sessions at Missouri Baptist once every two weeks.

He pats the black fanny pack at his side, a contraption that floods his veins with more of those same chemicals when he returns home.

He explains what hopefully comes next.

Roschnafsky has been pre-approved for a clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the best treatment facilities in the United States. If the chemotherapy does its job and shrinks his tumor, he could begin using Yervoy, a drug doctors believe can battle gastric cancer. Ideally, he would be able to travel back and forth between St. Louis and Houston, meaning he could be around his Maryville team as much as possible.

But there are no guaranteed results anymore. Should one option fail, another will be pursued.

The only constant is Roschnafsky’s adherence to the plan.

“I’m not in this to squeak by,” he says. “I’m in this to kick ass.”

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