Mark Story: UK-Transy game affirmed dying fan's passion for living

Herald-Leader sports columnistNovember 9, 2013 

Even after Max Gjerde, at age 23, got the cancer diagnosis in 2010 that so altered the course of his life, the young Transylvania University alumnus made it a point to be in Rupp Arena for the first two "Battles on Broadway" between the Pioneers and the Kentucky Wildcats.

This fall, after Max's health took a bad turn, his friends held out hope that on Nov. 1, when cross-town neighbors UK and Transy met for the third straight season in a men's basketball exhibition, he would be able to go. They had Max a ticket to the game and a T-shirt to wear.

When Max Gjerde (pronounced jur-dee) came to Transylvania as a freshman in 2005-06, he was known to attend Pioneers men's basketball games with a giant "T" painted on his face in the school colors, crimson and white. That school year, Max and his Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers created in Transy's Beck Center an NCAA Division III version of the rowdy Duke student cheering section, the Cameron Crazies.

"We had guys chanting in binary code. We had guys coming to the games dressed as bottles of Tabasco sauce," said Bryan Conover, a fraternity brother of Gjerde. "It was the nerdiest cheering in history. We loved it. Max loved it."

When it became apparent two Fridays ago that his health would not allow Max to attend the 2013 Transylvania-UK game, his nurses at UK's Kentucky Children's Hospital hatched a last-ditch effort to bring the game to him.

It was around 3 p.m. on the day of a 7 o'clock game when Transylvania Athletics Director Holly Sheilley got a call from a nurse at UK wondering if there was some way the Transy hoops team could interact with Max before playing John Calipari's Wildcats.

"I'm still pretty new here and didn't know Max or his story," Sheilley, who was hired over the summer, said Friday.

Once Sheilley heard the story, she felt moved to action. At the start of what became the final weekend of Max Gjerde's life, he got one more chance to encourage a Transylvania basketball team.

By the spring of 2010, Max had a Transy degree in hand and a future place in UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy secured. He was working in a Lexington restaurant, Bellini's, to make money for graduate school.

All seemed good, until he started passing blood. Max first thought he might have kidney stones. He called a friend attending medical school and asked, "Should I be nervous?"

At first, doctors were stumped over what was wrong. Eventually, they determined it was alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer known for often afflicting children. By the time of the diagnosis, Max's disease was already stage four.

The full gravity of the situation, Conover said, was made clear when a doctor bluntly told Max, "You have five years. Within five years, you'll be dead."

As he got sicker, Max's time at Transylvania, his last "normal" years before cancer, meant more and more to him.

Max had graduated from Walton-Verona High School in Boone County with such strong grades, he earned a prestigious William T. Young scholarship to Transy. Before he got to college, Max was an accomplished ballroom dancer and a high school cross-country runner. Thanks to a relative's job in the airline industry, he had traveled the world.

"When I met him in college, I thought he was the most interesting person I'd ever met," said Chelsey Spencer Tucker, who dated Gjerde in college and, after that ended, remained one of his best friends.

Max relished the college experience. "He was the life of everything," said Richmond Bramblett, a fellow Transy student. "He was the guy that would always stop and talk to you on campus."

By this fall, Max had endured three years of treatment, including both chemotherapy and radiation. He was having trouble retaining liquids and it was a struggle to stay awake more than a few hours at a time.

"He was a fighter," said Conover, with whom Max lived the past two years. "For him, fighting didn't look like what it might have with other people. He was not 'rah-rah, I'm going to beat this.' It was, 'I'm not going to let this ruin my day, I'm not going to let this ruin my relationships, I'm not going to let this take what energy and passion I do have.'"

Two things Max was always passionate about were the Cincinnati Reds and Transylvania basketball.

Fewer than four hours before Transy Coach Brian Lane was going to take his team of non-scholarship players, 13 freshmen, to face the No. 1 ranked team in NCAA Division I college basketball, his boss called. Before playing UK, Sheilley asked the coach if there was anything the Pioneers could do to reach out to a cancer-stricken alum.

"I didn't even have the final sentence completed, before Coach Lane said, 'We'll try,'" Sheilley said.

The Transy coach fleetingly considered trying to take the Pioneers to the UK Hospital, but instead Lane gathered the entire Transylvania team into a conference room and got out his iPad. At exactly 4:33 p.m., using the FaceTime application, Lane had Max Gjerde speaking to the Transy team.

Lane asked Max if he had attended the first two "Battles of Broadway," between UK and Transylvania.

"Hell, yeah," Max replied.

Said Lane: "He showed a lot spunk. But he kind of got quiet and said he wanted to go this year really bad, but he just couldn't."

The coach asked Max if there was anything he wanted to tell the Pioneers before they played Kentucky. "He sort of did some coaching," Lane said. "He talked about playing hard and not being intimidated."

Lane told Max that all Transylvania three-pointers made that night in Rupp Arena would be dedicated to him.

A last time, Max said, "Go Pios!"

Conover was driving down Upper Street on his way to Rupp Arena for the UK game when Transylvania sports publicist Laura Rudolph texted him a picture of the Transy basketball team FaceTiming with Max.

"I broke down," he said.

When Rudolph told Conover about Lane's promise about the treys, he created a Twitter hashtag for the game — #3sforMax. "It kind of caught on," Conover said. "We only made eight threes, but it was a fun eight."

By Saturday, Max started to slip away. On Sunday, when Lane visited him in the hospital, he was unconscious. Monday morning at 9:07, Max Gjerde, 26, died.

For every Transylvania three-point basket made this season, Max's college friends are hoping to raise money for the charity 3 Little Birds 4 Life, which helps young adults stricken by cancer.

On Friday night, only minutes after UK's 76-42 win over Transy, Conover visited his friend in the hospital.

"I said, 'Max, you are the only person I know personally who has a hashtag named after you,'" Conover said. "He said, 'I know, it's pretty awesome.'"

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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