Relay holds special meaning for Valley athletes

The news of 17-year-old Justin Stegemann's passing fell hard upon Carson Valley last March.

Stegemann had battled stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare untreatable form of brain cancer, almost four years to the day.

His family had sold their Valley home in 2004 to help pay for his medical expenses and moved to Indiana, where he later died at home with his family.

For his friends back in Nevada, there was never a memorial service scheduled.

It may seem like a leap to the hot July morning last week at Keith "Duke" Roman Field with 47 players gathered around Douglas High assistant football coach Ernie Monfilletto after a tough offseason workout.

But these juniors and seniors grew up playing Pop Warner football on the same teams with Stegemann.

This would have been Stegemann's senior season at Douglas.

"After Justin passed away, the boys were wanting to do something since there wasn't going to be a service for him here," said Terrie Thomas, whose son Tanner will be entering his first year on the Tigers' varsity squad.

The idea for a memorial evolved into a relay team including football players and cheerleaders at this weekend's Relay for Life event at Lampe Park.

At last count, 47 players and 27 cheerleaders have signed up to participate.

Ask any team entered this weekend, and every one will include many lives touched by cancer. Such is the nature of the disease.

This year's group of upperclassmen at the high school is no different.

Take first-year varsity wide receiver Zach McFadden, who is a two-time survivor. Or second-year player Wyatt Ziebell, who lost his father Pete to the disease on Father's Day.

Stegemann was linebacker/lineman Luke Wartgow's best friend. Cheerleading coach Kerry Munk is also numbered among the survivors.

James Lamb, a frequent face along the sidelines at games during the fall, has been battling the disease for more than a year. He received his diploma in June, but remains in contact with the Douglas coaching staff.

"Everyone has been touched by cancer at some point," said Monfilletto, who is eight years cancer-free after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. "These guys were friends with Justin. Zach went through cancer and remission.

"James, he's battled and he is on our sideline whenever he can make it. He's been a real inspiration to this football team. He is very special to us.

"Him coming to practice or to a game, or even just to talk to us, that's been such an important thing."

Thomas said that once the idea to start to take shape, she joined forces with McFadden's mother, Debbie, who fields a relay team every year.

"Once we put it out there, things really started to roll," Thomas said. "Everybody had something to add to it."

The team was named Team Justin/"Z" in honor of both Stegemann and McFadden.

"Zach is a two-time survivor and a lot of these kids were friends with him when they were playing sports together when they were little kids," Thomas said. "When Zach was in the hospital, you'd open the door and there would be 15 boys hanging out in his room.

"This has become something that they've all gone through together in one capacity or another."

McFadden was first diagnosed with a tumor in his neck when he was 10. A surgery removed the tumor and a lymph node, but three and a half years later he was diagnosed again with a tumor.

"There was no real name for it," his mother, Debbie McFadden, said. "The second surgery took his salivary glands and several lymph nodes. Because it had recurred, he had to go through six months of radiation the second time."

Leading up to Saturday's relay, the team will conduct a fundraiser at the grocery stores in town (Raley's, Scolari's, Smith's and Sierra Nevada Trading Company) on Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. Players and cheerleaders will sell luminaria bags and collect loose change to fill a large plastic football.

Thomas said that one of the things she hoped came across to the players was that this was something that they could give back to the community.

"We told them that they have this great, beautiful field that someone in the community was so generous to give them," she said. "This was a way to give back.

"We wanted to make sure that the boys realize how close to home this hits. A lot of times, you say the word cancer to kids this age and they think of older people. But it's right here in your community, right on the practice field with you."

Monfilletto echoed that thought.

"For me, cancer changed my entire life," he said. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me because it really helped me to realize how important every day is.

"You have to take advantage of every day, because you don't know if you'll get another one. I got diagnosed when I was 32 and I went through six months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation. I've been cancer free ever since.

"I just turned 40, and they're always talking about bring out the black balloons, but to me it's a celebration. Every birthday, every day is important to celebrate."

-- Joey Crandall can be reached at or at (775) 782-5121, ext. 212.


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