ALBURNETT — That scar. Oh, that scar.
Austin Stallman isn’t shy about showing it to you. It runs from his neck well up into the back of his head.
“Yeah, it’s pretty sweet,” he says with a smile.
It’ll always be there, a reminder of everything the Alburnett senior baseball player has endured and overcome. The emotional and physical pain he has experienced the last four years as he battled brain cancer and the absolute exhilaration of being back on the field with his teammates, including his younger brother, and their significant collective triumphs.
Alburnett (32-5) plays South Winneshiek (29-9) at the state tournament Saturday morning in Des Moines. The Pirates are Class 1A’s second seed.
Stallman likely will be his team’s starting designated hitter, as he has been most of this magical season. His brother, Reed, a sophomore, will be the first baseman.
“It means more, means a lot,” Austin Stallman said about this trip to Principal Park. “For sure. Absolutely.”
It was the winter of his eighth-grade year when he first noticed there was something wrong. He’d be rolling around on the wrestling mat during practice and suddenly become dizzy.
He’d vomit regularly after practice.
The Stallman family (Susie and Kurt have three children: Austin, Reed and Sara) didn’t expect anything too serious until the MRI came back from the doctor. The diagnosis was a medulloblastoma, a tumor that starts in the cerebellum (low, back part of the brain) and affects muscle coordination, balance and movement.
It’s rare, though the most common brain tumor in children.
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“When I first found out, my thought was ‘Am I going to be all right?’” Stallman said. “Then after that went by, I was like ‘Well, what sports can I play?’”
The Stallmans used sports as a metaphor during their prolonged two-year fight.
“We were walking across the parking lot at the hospital, and I do remember he asked right away ‘What’s going to happen?’” Susie Stallman said. “I said ‘Well, we’re going to find the best team that we can in order to beat this.’ We’ve always put this as a team thing. We told him ‘We, as a family, are going to find you a team of doctors, and we’re going to have the best team ever, and we are going to win. Don’t worry.’”
Two days after finding out he had cancer, Stallman underwent surgery at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The date was January 20, 2015.
Radiation and chemotherapy followed, as did physical therapy. Lots and lots of arduous physical therapy.
“I had to learn how to walk again,” Austin said. “I saw two of everything, had double vision. My hand-eye coordination, I couldn’t even pick up a fork with my dominant hand. It took months for me to get better.”
But he did get better and eventually heard those glorious words ‘cancer free.’
“I cried,” he said. “To be honest, I cried.”
They all did.
“He’s a trooper, man, and I knew he was going to fight and get through it,” said Reed Stallman. “I had no doubt in my mind that he would be back playing baseball.”
Oh, yeah, baseball. Austin Stallman played eight games as a sophomore, only two last season as a junior because he broke his back falling out of a golf court.
That’s a true story.
He has played in all of Alburnett’s games this season and has crafted a .263 batting average with 22 RBIs and 26 walks. Reed Stallman is the Pirates’ leading hitter at .465.
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“On the baseball field, am I affected still?” Austin said. “I was never a good runner, never very fast, but now I’m even slower because I had to learn how to run again. Getting back into baseball, my eyes, it felt a little weird tracking the ball at first. But that’s about it.”
Susie Stallman said she and her husband are so proud of this Alburnett team, which is making just its second state appearance, the other coming in 2006. Going back to the team theme, they are so extremely grateful to the doctors and therapists who helped Austin, extremely grateful to their family, friends and community who supported them during their ordeal.
“You asked if we’ve thought about back then and where we’ve come,” Susie Stallman said. “We, as a family, know there are many other families affected by cancer. And first and foremost, we want them to know that our hearts go out to each and every one of them.”
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