WHITING | When Patrick Petruf was 8, his mother wanted him to be involved in sports.
She took him to Hegewisch to join a swim program. As she filled out the paperwork, Patrick ran away. He wanted no part of swimming.
These days when Petruf, now 17, sees a gaping hole, he still bolts for daylight. Sometimes, it ends in a touchdown for the Whiting football team.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound wide receiver/safety is a big reason the Oilers remain undefeated on the season at 7-0 and 4-0 in the Greater South Shore Conference.
Along with playing both offense and defense, the senior is a return man on special teams.
"Patrick has been one of our big playmakers so far this season," Whiting coach Jeff Cain said. "He's a throwback in that he doesn't come off the field, starting on offense, defense and all special teams."
Petruf is more than a throwback player; he's a childhood cancer survivor.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and Petruf is a success story.
"In my everyday life, when I'm with my friends, I don't think about it," Petruf said. "When I'm at camp with other cancer survivors, I'm humbled. I got off easy."
When Petruf was 5, he was having trouble breathing, so his mother, Katarina Novotna, took him to a doctor, who thought Patrick had asthma.
Novotna's instinct kicked in and she took him to see Dr. Shah Chowdhury. He felt a lump in Patrick's abdomen and immediately sent him to St. Catherine's Hospital for testing.
"The next day, they called and set up an appointment at the University of Chicago and told us he had Wilms' tumor," Novotna said. "They told us he'd have surgery immediately to remove his whole kidney."
Petruf's entire left kidney was engulfed in the tumor. The cancer also had spread to his lungs and to his lymph nodes.
"I remember bits and pieces of it," Petruf said. "I remember asking if I could see the kidney."
After surgery, he endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He was 6 years old.
"I was devastated," Novotna said. "I was in a different world. At that time, you realize there are certain things you cannot control. In life at that moment you just have to trust God. You put everything in his hands."
Novotna's eyes welled with tears as she recalled the moment. Novotna raised Patrick and his younger brother Martin — a freshman football player — as a single parent from the time they were 6 and 3 years old.
"She doesn't get enough credit," Petruf said.
Petruf's cancer has stayed in remission. He travels to Indianapolis each year for a checkup.
Wilms' tumor is the most common form of cancer in children with 500 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. While cancer is the most common cause of death by disease for children in America, today the overall five-year survival rate for children is close to 80 percent.
With one functioning kidney, Novotna wanted Patrick to choose noncontact sports, hence the swim program. But football became Patrick's love.
The Oilers, known historically for their tailbacks, are loving what Petruf brings to the field.
He has 23 catches for 536 yards and seven touchdowns, with a 23.3 yards-per-catch average. He also returned an interception and a kickoff for touchdowns. On defense, he has 30 tackles, three interceptions and two deflections.
Patrick had to convince his mother and doctors he could take the hits. He wears an extra shield to protect his midsection.
"Of course I was nervous, especially his freshman year," Novotna said. "But I got used to it. It's not the same feeling as when I watch Martin play."
But Novotna again trusted her instinct.
"I believe everyone has an intuition," she said, "pulling you toward something. And whatever it is in life, it will fulfill you. You can't stop then. You have to go for it."
Petruf said he's not going to stop, whether it's leading the Oilers to conference and sectional titles or staying on top of his health.
"We've worked hard and we know that our hard work has not paid off yet," he said. "Sometimes we ask why we're doing this, going through conditioning in the snow during the winter, why we work out for two hours. Our coaches keep telling us it's going to pay off."
No matter the seasons's outcome, the payoff has come for mother and son.
"He's tough," Novotna said. "I keep telling him he has to take care of his body. His body is not the same as other healthy bodies. You only have one health. You only have one life."