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BATTLING BACK : Encinitas' Keith Kartz Didn't Let Cancer End Football Career

January 29, 1988|MARC APPLEMAN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Sure, Denver Bronco offensive lineman Keith Kartz of Encinitas dreamed about being in a Super Bowl and particularly about playing in one near home.

But to keep things in perspective, Kartz's biggest dream occurred six years ago, when he worried about making it past his 18th year.

Kartz was suffering from stomach cancer. On Dec. 17, 1981, he had a tumor removed. On Dec. 24, he had malignant lymph nodes removed. Three months of chemotherapy treatments followed, and he lost 40 pounds.

But he never lost the risk-taking, carefree spirit that characterized his comeback, which is culminating this week in Super Bowl XXII.

On Tuesday morning of Super Bowl week, Kartz was sitting in the stands of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium wearing stylish sunglasses while basking in the sun.

There weren't hordes of reporters around Kartz, as there were around quarterback John Elway and the "Three Amigos" receivers. Instead, only a few reporters talked to Kartz, a reserve lineman who probably will play on about 10 goal-line and short-yardage situations against the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

But those on hand heard a heartwarming story.

"It's hard to describe (this feeling) in words," Kartz said. "The more I think about it, the more excited I get. The better I feel.

"This whole year has been so good for me. It's about the best year of my life. A year ago, I was out of work and didn't know where I was going. Now I'm playing in the Super Bowl and making good money. It's like a dream. It's really unbelievable."

What also is unbelievable is the circuitous route that brought Kartz here.

Once Kartz recovered from cancer, he went on to become All-Pacific 10 as a senior at California. He hoped to play pro football, but he wasn't drafted, and Seattle cut him as a free agent two years ago.

He was planning to return to school to earn a teaching credential and was working part time in construction when the Broncos called him before this season began. He made the team and solidified his spot by starting and playing well in three strike games.

"He's a wild and crazy kid," said Craig Bell, the Rancho Buena Vista High School coach who coached Kartz at San Dieguito. "You would not get through what Keith has gone through unless you have more of that than most. He has more guts than 12 people. He has a lot of courage and mental toughness. He's one of those kids who can survive the mental strain."

And a 10-month battle against cancer that was discovered when he was an 18-year-old Cal freshman.

"He took chances of undergoing treatment in which he'd have the best chance of recovery," said Keith's mother, Sandra.

Memories of his months at nearby Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla made this Super Bowl moment that much sweeter for Kartz, 24, who was under a lot of strain in the winter of 1981-82.

Kartz had just completed his first year of college football as he headed back home to San Diego for winter break in December.

He was a strong and talented football, basketball and track and field star at San Dieguito who earned a scholarship to Cal, even though he missed his senior season with torn knee ligaments. It appeared Kartz might not get to play major college football, but he said about seven schools showed interest. He chose Cal over Utah because of its academic reputation.

His first few months of college were exciting, but Kartz hadn't been feeling well during the latter part of the semester, and he had an idea that he was sick. But he had no idea how sick.

"I noticed it (the illness) the summer before, six months earlier," Kartz said. "I went to the doctor and he told me it was infection, gave me some pills and said it would go away.

"It kind of did. I had so much going on when I first got up to Cal. It's something I kind of forgot about. Toward the end of the season, every night after practice, I'd be in pain and I was hurting. I'd tell my friends about it. I'd say, 'God, I'm really hurting.' They'd say, 'Ahhh, quit complaining, quit whining.' That kind of thing. You know, the big macho."

Kartz spent January, February and March undergoing chemotherapy treatments and going back and forth between his home and Scripps hospital.

"The toughest thing was being laid up and having to stay in bed," Kartz said. "Not being able to do things. Football was the first thing on my mind. I've always been an active guy growing up. That was what I wanted to do. I was tired of laying around in bed and doing all the operations and chemotherapy and all that garbage.

"The whole time I was in bed, I used to tell myself I'd like to go out and play football. I'd like to go out and run. I'd like to go surfing. Those were things I couldn't do. Now I can do anything I want. It's a great feeling."

The more he talked about the past, the more Kartz smiled about the present.

He was overjoyed that those same friends and family who helped him get through his illness would now be his guests at Sunday's Super Bowl.

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