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Life Lessons

by on August 13, 2014 9:12 AM

The man in the wheelchair continues to teach the up-and-coming football star. Tom Kirchhoff, maybe the best quarterback ever from Cedar Cliff High, can no longer walk or even talk clearly enough for most to understand. He’s still only in his early-40s.

Penn State’s Adam Breneman, who could turn into the best tight end from Cedar Cliff, is overcoming yet another injury as he grows into an impressive catching and blocking force for the Nittany Lions.

Kirchhoff is fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the killer also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And Breneman, 19, continues to help, giving of his time and inspiration to benefit Project A.L.S., a nonprofit foundation based in New York City.

The two are forever connected through their high school, their hometown, their sport, and even more. They text message each other often, and Breneman makes a point to stop by and visit Kirchhoff whenever he comes back to the Harrisburg area, even if Kirchhoff’s wife must translate what he’s saying.

“The ALS just keeps getting worse, but he’s got a great attitude about it. He’s motivation to me every day,” Breneman says. “Every time something in my life doesn’t go the way it’s planned, or obstacles come up, I talk to Tom and think about it through his perspective.”

Kirchoff watches all of Breneman’s Penn State games on TV. After last season, Breneman stopped by to give him the gloves he wore making his first touchdown catch in college.

“They both really are supporting each other,”says Kirchhoff’s wife, Staci.

•• •

The most important time for Breneman came in the days after his football career was rearranged. This was the summer of 2012, as the Jerry Sandusky trial was playing out and about a month before Penn State was slammed with NCAA sanctions.

Breneman, arguably the nation’s top tight end high school recruit, had ripped up his knee during a simple pass-catching drill. There were no pads or contact. The knee just buckled.

It was difficult enough to accept missing his senior football season at Cedar Cliff. The thing was, so many fans, teammates, and fellow recruits already looked up

to him. What would he do? How would he handle it all — a coaching change at Penn State, the uncertainty around the Sandusky scandal, being a 17-year-old leader ... and then, with a bad knee on top of it all?

Working hard rehabbing in the weight room wouldn’t be enough.

So he threw himself into another project that had a lot to do with football but, in another sense, nothing to do with it at all. Kirchhoff was a star quarterback not only in high school but also at Lafayette College, and earned a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles.

He was a successful businessman who was married with four kids and was still a hero of sorts in his hometown. He not only was a family friend of the Brenemans, he also helped coach Adam’s younger brother, Grant, in youth football.

Overcoming a torn-up knee? Kirchhoff was dealing with possibly only having a few years to live. His wife, meanwhile, also was battling cancer. The thought of it all, this connection, motivated Breneman in a way that would come to define how he says he envisions most everything in life now.

He had just created Catch the Cure, the fundraising project sparked by Kirchhoff’s ALS battle, with proceeds benefiting Project A.L.S. But the knee injury just gave more perspective, insight, and drive. His initial fundraising goal of $20,000, a stunning amount for a high school student with no previous fundraising experience, was nearly reached in only one day.

Most of the $170,000 or so raised overall was accomplished by the time he arrived at Penn State in January 2013.

“What makes Adam so different, honestly, is that he does everything on his own,” says Erin Fleming, associate director at Project A.L.S. “You get a lot of people who call and want to get involved, but they need a lot of handholding and want us to tell them what to do. Even if they have the heart ... doesn’t mean they have the personality to buckle down and get things done.

“Adam was so independent and sure of himself of what he wanted to do, and his execution was just flawless the whole way through.”

The project quickly grew into more than a touching outreach gesture to a friend, more than something to redirect his focus once football was taken away temporarily. It was even more than a unique preparation for his business studies at Penn State.

The key was taking advantage of Penn State’s vast football following, in part through his impressive social-media outreach, to truly make a difference in a larger fight against a disease.

In some ways, he even saw some benefits from it all on the football field. When he was unexpectedly thrust into early-season blocking duties as a true freshman, he had a blueprint for persevering. He thought of Kirchhoff. When nagging foot ailments bothered him during last fall, maybe even slowing his overall progress at points, he pushed on and thought of Kirchhoff.

As it all played out, he not only recovered from that torn ACL in impressive time, his on-field contributions increased down the stretch. He caught touchdown passes in Penn State’s final three games, including an early momentum-setter at Wisconsin.

“Because he’s learned the about the disease and the challenges Tom faces ... it gives him a perspective a lot of kids don’t have. I certainly didn’t have that when I was in school. I wouldn’t have understood any of that,” says his father, Brian Breneman, a Spring Grove grad and a standout college tight end at the Division III level. “Things can be more important than what you’re facing on the football field or in practice or in school. Things are a little bigger than going out there and playing on game day.”

Adam Breneman figured that out quickly enough long before he ever left for college. Choosing to stay close to home at Penn State as a prestigious five-star talent was one thing. But sticking with the program and promoting it through the scandal and sanctions was quite another.

Fans already knew him and quarterback Christian Hackenberg like almost no incoming freshmen who ever came before them.

“With that comes responsibility, and we talk about that a lot,” Brian Breneman says. “With his experience with Project A.L.S., he was a leader in his own way, driving that project. The fundraising helped him grow as a leader on the football field with his teammates.

“A lot of people are counting on you in both positions.”

And a lot of it goes back to the man he ended up following as a high school hero.

• ••

Things seemed about as perfect as possible for Kirchhoff, 43, just a handful of years ago. He worked his way up to vice president and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co., and was helping raise four healthy children — Tommy, now 14, Sam, 12, Bryn, 10, and Ty, 8.

He coached football on the side.

It was about six years ago when he started noticing the physical changes, just blips at first. Some of his words began sounding awkward during business meetings. Cramps in his legs gradually worsened and spread through the rest of his body. Weight began falling off.

At first, the eventual ALS diagnosis hit Kirchhoff hardest with depression, not anger. So as the Catch the Cure project was helping Breneman refocus and grow, it also gave the Kirchhoffs an opportunity to finally view such an overwhelming negative in some kind of positive light.

They needed all they could get. A few months after Kirchhoff was diagnosed, doctors told Staci she had stage III melanoma and that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent surgery and then chemotherapy.

And so every possible positive, no matter what or how small, was celebrated. For example, being connected to Breneman and the fundraising and

Penn State “allows Tom to continue [with football] even though his body is deteriorating,” Staci Kirchhoff says. “He feels a part of the football experience that was so big in his life.”

How does Tom Kirchhoff possibly help Breneman? It all starts with that inexplicable sunny attitude, and how he takes on every day as if he’s ready to run a bunch of 50-yard gassers before practice.

No matter that he’s forced to use his breathing machine more than ever now, between 15 to 20 hours a day. Or that he relies on communicating more and more with his iPad. Or that he cannot eat any longer — all of his nutrition is delivered through a feeding tube.

“A lot has changed in his function in the past year but really not in attitude and ability to go to all of his kids’ sports events and socialize with friends,” his wife says. “He’s still living life to the fullest.”

The connections only continue to strengthen.

Staci Kirchhoff graduated from Penn State, and their families have been football season-ticket holders. Her cousin, Mick Blosser, was a former Nittany Lion fullback who has run marathons to raise money for the Kirchhoffs and to fight ALS.

Plus, the Gettysburg College baseball team recently held its second annual fundraising project in honor of Kirchhoff and brought in $10,000 for Project A.L.S.

Meanwhile, though Breneman has not be able to continue his fundraising while attending college and playing a varsity sport, he does continue to impact Project A.L.S. He recently spent time with organization officials as part of a mini-internship, which included assisting in a fundraising event at a New York Mets’ game. Plus, Catch the Cure turned out to be the first major online fundraiser the nonprofit participated in.

Previously, the organization had been focused on celebrity supporters, such as actor Ben Stiller, and “cut and dry and fundraising,” Fleming says. “Adam really showed us about galvanizing younger people … who care so much about the world but don’t always have the tools to make a big donation. And Adam has really made us focus more on what we’re doing online. Adam’s been a huge inspiration for us.”

Project A.L.S. now hopes to incorporate not just Breneman but also more of the Penn State football team to promote its cause with a project unveiling possibly later this summer or fall, Fleming says.

Soon enough, Breneman will be starting preseason camp and continuing his quest to be a more “all-around tight end,” who can block just as well as he can catch and run. He says the minor knee injury that forced him to miss part of spring practice will be behind him.

The season then begins, uniquely enough, with a family caravan of sorts to Dublin, Ireland. Not only will Penn State play in the Croke Park Classic, but also younger brother Grant Breneman expects to be the starting quarterback when Cedar Cliff takes on Penn Manor the night before as part of the Global Ireland Football Tournament.

Always, the Kirchhoffs and the cause will be close at hand.

“This continues to give back,” Adam Breneman says.

He still receives e-mail stories and Thank You messages from people who are fighting ALS.

“He has an idea of something greater than himself,” says Staci Kirchhoff. “So many kids are focused on themselves and they’re so self-involved. Adam has a completely different outlook. I’m sure part of it is how he was raised, and part is just his nature.”



Frank Bodani, a beat reporter for the York Daily Record, has covered Penn State since 1994.
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