BEMIDJI -- One word shattered Vinny Tesch’s entire world.

Cancer.

“It was kind of like a slap to the face,” he said. “It took me and my family’s breath away.”

Tesch was a month away from opening kickoff with his Bemidji High School football team. Instead, Tesch faced a diagnosis far more daunting than any adversary on the gridiron.

“Honestly, (my emotions) were kind of all over,” Tesch said. “But at the same time, they were stable because I knew God had a plan for me.”

With his senior year nearing, Tesch went in for a routine physical in July 2019. But his doctor found a testicular lump, which started a series of blood tests, MRIs and CAT scans in the days that followed.

“Normally, I’m a very emotional person. But at that time, I wasn’t at all because it happened really fast,” said Vinny’s mother, Susan. “You go into what’s known as Warrior Mom Mode. You just do what you’ve got to do.”

At 17 years old, Vinny Tesch was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor.

Tesch and his parents raced to three different hospitals, in three different cities, within two days. Normal life had been disrupted, and football felt a lot further off than just down the road to the field.

The tumor was benign, and Tesch had surgery to remove it within five days of the original discovery. Despite a time of such uncertainty, however, Tesch found solace in his new team.

“I knew that (the doctors) would do what they needed to do,” he said. “I had elbow surgery just a few months earlier, and I trust the doctors with my life. That’s what they do every day.”

Under the knife and on the clock

Vinny Tesch likes to hunt and fish. He spends his summers on the lake, and he gets together with his friends. By most any standard, he’s a normal teenager.

With one glaring exception.

“He had just gotten clearance from (major arm surgery),” Susan said. “He was so happy to get through it, and boom, we have another setback. I thought he handled this second setback amazingly well.”

Susan Tesch, right, smiles at her son Vinny in their home on March 24 while talking about his recovery from a cancer scare last summer. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Susan Tesch, right, smiles at her son Vinny in their home on March 24 while talking about his recovery from a cancer scare last summer. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

While Tesch was on the operating table, his surgeon called an audible. The tumor, which three doctors had agreed was cancerous, didn’t have the physical appearance he had expected. With 90 seconds to make a decision, he changed course.

“Going in, they were like, ‘We’re 99% sure this is cancerous,” said Vinny’s father, Jeff. “(The surgeon) said he’d never been so happy to be wrong, and almost apologetic that he was wrong. And yet, he couldn’t be happier.”

The surgeon determined it “wasn’t worth” removing as much as planned. The tumor came out, of course, but that was all. And Vinny Tesch went back to being a normal, healthy teenager.

“There were a lot of prayers going on,” Jeff said. “When you realize the doctor is saying they’re sure, it’s 99% that they’re going to do this (and they don’t), it’s a miracle, or prayers are answered, all the above. Have faith and have trust. It certainly paid off.”

‘A great story’

Following the surgery, the season opener loomed less than a month away. Tesch was on bed rest for two weeks, and yet his football family still didn’t forget about him.

“I had I think 10 football players from our team who came over and brought me a cake,” Tesch said. “They ended up eating it all and I only had a little slice. … I barely had any. They devoured that.”

Messages and check-ins helped Tesch get through his recovery period. After two weeks, he had a follow-up appointment that revealed no new lumps.

And by the time the Aug. 29 season opener arrived, Tesch was in uniform.

“It was good to feel like, ‘God did that,’” Tesch said. “… You take a lot of things for granted in life. Until they’re gone, you don’t realize how much you miss them.”

Because he was absent for much of the preseason, Tesch found his name buried on the defensive back depth chart. Still, he assumed punting duties all season and helped the Lumberjacks to a 7-0 start and a section championship game appearance.

His highlight-reel game came Oct. 4, a 66-0 victory over Big Lake in which Tesch saw extended playing time in the defensive secondary. He produced a 42-yard pick-six and a fumble recovery within three plays.

“That’s what makes it a great story,” said former BHS football head coach Troy Hendricks. “The infectious, loving person that Vinny is, to have that happen, you get all choked up and worried about him because he’s one of your own. But to have the results he did, and to turn around so quickly and be a part of the team, it makes a great story.”

Vinny the Patient was back to being Vinny the Football Player. That in itself was a blessing.

“I was just happy to have him out there to do anything, to be a part of the team,” Susan said. “It was exciting to move forward.”

A new chapter nears

Tesch will be a high school graduate come May. He’ll be playing football at the University of Jamestown next fall, and he’ll be pursuing a career in law enforcement because he wants to do something with his life to help others.

“He could have been a ‘woe is me’ kid pretty easily,” Jeff said. “… We told him, ‘You realize what’s going on here, the second chance you’ve been given. That’s how you’ve got to look at it.’”

The Jimmies, once a dominant force in the 1970s and 1980s, went 2-9 last season. But Tesch believes in second-year head coach Brian Mistro, and the staff’s support outside of football went a long way, as well.

“They were all really, really supportive and wanted me to know that they’re there for anything I needed,” Tesch said. “You see all these athletes that get hurt, and then their scholarships get pulled. It was nice to know that they were going to be there for me.”

And, as Hendricks has witnessed firsthand, it’ll be a two-way street when Tesch steps foot in his new locker room.

“Vinny’s a teammate first and an athlete second,” Hendricks said. “He loves to be a part of a team. That’s why Vinny participates in sports and wants to continue.”

The rest of Vinny Tesch’s senior year at Bemidji High School is up in the air due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he plans to study law enforcement next fall at the University of Jamestown. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
The rest of Vinny Tesch’s senior year at Bemidji High School is up in the air due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he plans to study law enforcement next fall at the University of Jamestown. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Like all of his classmates, Tesch has been forced out of his school as distance learning takes over amid the coronavirus pandemic. His education will instead continue in the same house where he was confined to bed rest not so long ago.

But, whether or not he returns to his high school halls, and whether or not he walks across the graduation stage, Tesch knows a thing or two about rolling with the punches.

“He never wavered,” Hendricks said. “He would tell you, ‘Coach, I’m really nervous. I’m really scared.’ But his personality didn’t change. That’s one of his special qualities and what made him such a great teammate and a wonderful human being.”

One word once shattered Vinny Tesch’s entire world. Temporarily, at least.

“Just have patience,” he said of the lesson he learned. “And let God do his work.”