An inspiration!

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

In the eyes of Diane Burkholder, the Edmonton Eskimos are angels.

By practically adopting her cancer-stricken son - who simply became known as Karl B. on the practice field - she believes the football club added weeks to his life.

"Without them I think he would have died a month ago," said Diane.

"They gave him excitement and joy.

"They gave him a purpose for living and for fighting right to the end."

Unfortunately, the end arrived on Tuesday when Karl died at the Grey Nuns Hospital with cancer running rampant through his body.

He was 18 - and a special part of the Eskimo family.

"Once an Eskimo, always an Eskimo," said offensive lineman Joe McGrath, showing just how remarkable the bond became.

In the type of story that is rarely found in professional sports, a simple visit by head coach Danny Maciocia to the Stollery Hospital last January started a friendship that eventually touched an entire football team.

The relationship also helped a young man deal with facing a terminal disease.

Through summer and fall, Karl was the central figure in the most memorable moments from the practice field.

From chatting with Maciocia on the sidelines to being presented with his own team jersey to sprinting into the team huddle at the end of one practice, Karl was able to escape the nightmare that was his deteriorating health.

"What they did I am eternally grateful for," said Diane, who watched Karl fight cancer for 15 months.

"They (the Eskimos) have angel wings. They could ask me for anything."

But in Karl's own way, he has already helped the team.

For Maciocia, he put life in perspective in the midst of an ugly season.

"As much as I went through a tough time (in the season) and you sort of say: 'Why is this happening to me?' " remarked the coach.

"You (then) look over and see him (at practice) and you say to yourself: 'You better snap out of it because you don't know how good you have it.' "

For McGrath, Karl became an inspiration.

"His courage and strength helped us through the season during tough times," he said. Saddled with an internal system that couldn't stop the growth of tumours, Karl had 25 surgeries to remove growths in his body.

Mentally challenged as well, he had the cognitive skills of a 14-year-old.

"But during that last month I think he matured and turned from a boy to a man," said Diane, who gives most of the credit to the players and coaches.

And come Monday at his funeral, the Eskimos will pay the ultimate tribute with Maciocia and likely some of his staff planning to have one more visit.

"I know today that Karl is in a better place and he is not suffering anymore," said Maciocia.

"And he deserves not to suffer anymore."

While Karl touched the Eskimos, his most lasting gift could be the spirit he installed in his mother, who is now fighting her own battle with cancer.

"I am going to be a fighter and I am going to make my son proud of me," said Diane, who has lung cancer.


Videos

Photos