Mac Engel

Cowboys' radio voice opens up about son's fight against cancer

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and long-time Cowboys' radio analyst Babe Laufenberg (left) with his son, Luke, who recently was released from the hospital; he was diagnosed with Burkitt's leukemia on Dec. 26, 2017. Luke and his dad attended Cowboys' practice this week at The Star.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and long-time Cowboys' radio analyst Babe Laufenberg (left) with his son, Luke, who recently was released from the hospital; he was diagnosed with Burkitt's leukemia on Dec. 26, 2017. Luke and his dad attended Cowboys' practice this week at The Star. Star-Telegram

We have all stumbled, searched and grasped for the right words to offer someone who is experiencing great fear, sadness or loss, and in the end, we mostly feel stupid, small and embarrassed.

Because sometimes there truly are no words, even if we are unable to grasp that simple reality.

In the last week, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg and his son, Luke, have shared their story with a few local outlets; Luke was diagnosed with Burkitt leukemia on Dec. 26. He did the whole nightmare that is modern cancer treatment.

"Dad, there must be 2,000 people praying for me. Why am I so sick?" Luke, 20, asked his dad during his stay in the hospital.

"As a dad, that's so hard," said Babe, the color analyst in the Cowboys radio booth. "I'd just say, 'I just know those prayers aren't hurting.'"

On Wednesday, with Luke's weight coming back up and his hair growing, he stood on the Dallas Cowboys' practice fields to watch next to his dad, just a few days before Father's Day.

I am not going to do any better job than the other journalists who have told the story of pain, fear and horror the Laufenberg family experienced through this hell, but I wanted to know one thing: What are you supposed to say?

What are you supposed to say when your friend hurts? What are you supposed to say when a parent is confronting the loss of a child? What do you say when your friend is going through life-altering fear and/or pain?

Babe and his son are now both reluctant authority figures on this subject. They learned there is a way for those not in this situation to handle it and be there for those we love.

Start with process of elimination, and begin with what not to say to people in these types of situations.

"There was a real possibility that he was not going to be around. I think the one thing that made me a little bit upset was someone might say, 'He'll be fine,'" Babe said. "I was in the hospital. I saw him. I said to myself, 'There's no guarantee he's going to be fine.' When I saw him, I knew there was a real chance he may not leave this hospital."

In retrospect, I may have texted those words to Babe. If I did, I can only say I am sorry.

Because, when you live long enough, you know in situations like those the last thing you want to hear is "It's going to be OK."

It will be OK for the person saying it. The person hearing it knows differently.

"Keep it short," Luke said. "The big thing is not to compare it to anything in your life. Whenever I lost a bunch of weight, people would compare it to something very minor that happened to them. I was like, 'These are totally different things.'"

Luke received a few messages from friends trying to relate to his weight loss via chemotherapy to weight loss via fraternity pledgeship. That one just missed the mark.

"I know someone compared it to mono," he said. "Keep it concise. Let them know you are thinking about them. And, like my dad said, the 'You'll be fine' got a little annoying because that person hasn't even seen you to know. Saying something like that is just a cliche."

What Luke Laufenberg had could have killed him.

Per WebMD, Burkitt leukemia is recognized as the fastest-growing human tumor and can be "rapidly fatal if left untreated."

Luke's condition was treated within a matter of weeks of discovery.

As Babe noted, every time the doctors warned Luke that he may experience "this complication" from the latest procedure, it happened. Not once. Every single time something could potentially go wrong as a result of the latest rounds of punches to the face, it happened.

"Babe or (Luke's mother) Joan was up there at the hospital every night," said Babe's younger brother, John. "I guess it was about 90 days in there where it was absolute hell for him, and ... yeah, I guess I did go there (in thought) and did think that we might not see him again."

Luke, who walked on at Texas A&M to play tight end, was eventually reduced to 150 pounds.

Babe's former college coach at Indiana, current ESPN analyst Lee Corso, called and tried to have a conversation, but Luke was unable; ever the comedian, Corso said he couldn't talk either because he had a stroke.

Eventually, after approximately three months of near constant bone-smashing treatment, his condition improved.

Like most people, or families, who go through such prolonged periods of fear, when the stress begins to subside, there was no great celebration for the Laufenbergs. There was no champagne pop. No snapping of the finish line ribbon.

Just complete exhaustion.

There is the process of beginning to re-establish normal, and gratitude.

There's just life.

"For me, any activity I do with friends or family, getting outside of the house and not just watching Netflix, is a blast for me," said Luke, who plans to re-enter college in the spring intent on playing football. "For so long, I couldn't drink or eat. So seeing my friends or eating Mexican outside, it's something I no longer take for granted."

So the next time a friend or loved one is going through something similar, heed the words of Babe Laufenberg on how to console them.

"The best thing, as far as I was concerned, some people would text and say, 'There are no words,'" he said. "Because there were no words."

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