Keannu battled brain cancer to reach his goal: graduation
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles profiling the Every Student Succeeding award winners, which will be honored at the Leadership Summit ESS Luncheon in November.
Keannu Linnell was Mr. All-American. A three-sport athlete at Lathrop High, Keannu excelled at everything. But for all of his battles on the football field, wrestling mat and baseball diamond, his biggest battle came in a hospital room.
“You don’t know what you’re going to do or how you’re going to handle it until you are faced with it,” Keannu’s father, Alec Linnell, said. “There’s no script. There’s no book. There’s nobody that can tell you how to be or how to act. It’s something that goes deep inside your soul.”
During Keannu’s sophomore year, the junior-varsity quarterback started complaining of blurry vision. Doctors initially thought he suffered a concussion. But as the symptoms worsened, Keannu’s parents pushed for answers. On Dec. 3, 2016, a CT scan confirmed the family’s worst fears: a brain tumor.
“My worst nightmare was coming true,” Alec Linnell said. “And I knew at that time we had to knuckle down and take care of business.”
Three days later, Keannu underwent surgery to relieve hydrocephalus, or fluid in the brain, which can cause severe headaches. Keannu suffered a stroke on the operating table, leading to a medically-induced coma.
“It was heartbreaking,” Keannu’s teammate Frankie Guzman said. “It didn’t feel real. It felt like it was made up. It didn’t hit me until I went to go see him with my own eyes, because I had to see it to believe it. And when I saw it with my own eyes, it broke me down. It tore me down because that’s my quarterback.”
Doctors performed a second surgery to successfully remove the tumor, but the all-American was now a shell of his former self. Keannu was non-verbal and partially paralyzed with short-term memory loss. After six months in the hospital, Keannu moved to a rehabilitation center with the goal of returning to school at Lathrop High.
“He could have given up,” Lathrop High principal Greg Leland said. “He could have quit. He could have felt sorry for himself. The family could have said this is the end. Nobody did that. Nobody in the family did that. Keannu never did that.”
Keannu had plenty of help. His older sister, Callia, had just become a mother and was pregnant with her second child. But she sacrificed time with her children to work as Keannu’s full-time caregiver.
“Helping my brother is a whole different situation that I didn’t think I was going to be going through,” Callia said. “But it’s definitely rewarding seeing him get better. Seeing his legs move more. Seeing his arms move more. It kind of brings me some joy seeing that.”
While Callia says it was an easy decision, it’s one her parents did not take for granted.
“She dropped everything,” Alec Linnell said. “And she knew what she had to do. And in that process, she found out her calling. What she wanted to do in life. And this is what she wants to do. She’s an amazing woman. She’s made all of us very, very, very proud of her. She’s exactly what everybody aspires to be when put in that predicament.”
When Keannu returned to school full-time in the spring of his junior year, he had one major goal in mind: graduation. But earning his diploma was not enough. He wanted to get out of his wheelchair and walk across the stage to receive it. And so, on May 30, surrounded by his friends and family, Keannu returned to the football field and did just that. It was not how he originally imagined it, but it was a far greater accomplishment than any touchdown pass.
“I was thinking what am I going to say to him to inspire him to stand?” Alec Linnell said. “And I told him, ‘Stand my son.’ I tried to yell it as loud as I could as if I was at a football game. The very fact that they said he’d never see his 17th birthday, let alone graduate with his class was an achievement in itself.”
When asked about the last 2 ½ years, Keannu credited his work ethic.
“I never gave up,” Keannu said.
But there is still work to be done. Keannu knows this. His family knows this. But they remain steadfast in their commitment and belief that Keannu will one day play football again as he finds his new normal.
“His journey has not ended,” Callia said. “It’s just begun. We’re saying he’s going to be even better. We’re saying that he’s going to be whatever he wants to be. He’ll say where he’s going to end up.”