NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Nearly six months have passed since a beloved member of the CBS 11 family endured what is arguably the worst thing that can befall a parent — the death of a child.
Luke Laufenberg, the 21 year old son of Babe and Joan Laufenberg and brother to Joe Willie Laufenberg passed away almost 20 months after he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive blood cancer.
Karen Borta, a longtime friend and colleague of Babe’s, recently sat down with him to talk about Luke, how he’s coping with his youngest son’s passing, and the legacy the young man left behind.
Babe has had many high-profile jobs. He’s been an NFL quarterback, a television sports anchor, and a color commentator for the Dallas Cowboys. But easily, the best job he’s ever had is being a dad. That’s why his world all but shattered the day doctors said Luke had cancer.
Karen sat down with Babe recently over coffee to talk about Luke. They had coffee because that’s what the Laufenberg’s do.
“Both of my sons would go,” says Babe. “And I’d say, ‘Go ahead and do your texting, get your group texts out of the way… check Twitter and in five minutes we’re going put the phones away and have our coffee and talk.’ So it was just a great time to sit down, and really find out what’s going on in their lives.”
It wasn’t over coffee, but during a phone call that Babe first learned something was wrong with his then-19 year old. At the time Luke was playing football at Mesa Community College in Arizona. The family would soon learn the agonizing pain the teen was experiencing had nothing to do with the hits he took on the field.
“He was coming home the next day, and he told me about his pain, and I said, ‘Why don’t you lie down and take a couple of Tylenol and we’ll get you home.’ And he said, ‘I can’t lie down. It hurts too much,'” Babe remembered aloud.
Initially a doctor in Arizona thought Luke had the flu, but the teen’s pain worsened exponentially over the coming days — to the point that morphine couldn’t control it.
“A day or two later, we were in the emergency room. He was in so much pain, he was literally ripping his shirt off,” Babe said in a thick voice. “It was all this bone pain that was affecting him… back, legs. The cancer had spread through his body, but obviously we didn’t know that.”
It took 10 days for doctors to finally determine Luke had cancer — Burkitt lymphoma to be exact. The cancer is rare and aggressive and had to be fought just as aggressively.
“They told us at the time that we really get one shot at this thing, and if you relapse it’s not good,” explained Babe.
Luke went through five months of brutal and debilitating chemotherapy. When it comes to cancer, sometimes battling through the treatment can be just as hard as fighting the disease. As the medicine coursed through him Luke’s weight dropped from a strapping 240 pounds to 150 pounds.
In early May a full-body scan showed Luke was technically cancer-free. And for this young man that meant one thing. “His whole goal,” Babe explained, “was to build his body back up and play (football).”
And he was given that chance during the spring semester of 2019 when he was recruited to play for the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He was at the school for three happy months — until his back began hurting during spring training in April.
“They did an MRI in El Paso,” Babe said, “and they read it back here — his doctors at Children’s Hospital — and they basically said, ‘You’d better get him home.’ ” The cancer had returned.
The Laufenberg’s decided to try a newer type treatment called “CAR T-cell therapy”, in which some of Luke’s own immune system cells are altered in a lab and then re-introduced into the body to fight the cancer cells. The treatment seemed to be working. By the second week in July, Luke was lifting weights again and running with his dad. But just days later — the pain was back.
The resulting scan brought the worst possible news. “We were in the examining room after the scan, and the doctor walked in and, “Basically, he said, ‘This is it. He’s terminal,’ ” Babe recalled as he sobbed quietly. “Again, he never… never complained. Never said, ‘Why me?’ I was saying, why him? And naturally, as a parent, you say, give it to me. He doesn’t deserve that.”
Struggling to compose himself Babe again remembered his plea to “give it to me,” but admitted, “…you find out it doesn’t work like that.”
Luke’s only wish was for life to go on, as normal. He didn’t want to be treated differently, and he really didn’t want to talk about it.
“One day I had told him, over coffee, ‘If you want to talk about anything, if you have anything to say, I’m here to listen’ and he said, ‘There’s really not much to say’. He said, ‘It is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.'”
One thing Luke did want to do: fulfill a lifelong dream of skydiving. So despite the pain, the teenager, wearing a giant grin, jumped out of a plane. “I think that’s all Luke wanted to do,” says Babe, “get as much out of every moment he had left in his life. And he did it. I mean, he did it.”
But the time remaining for him was short. Luke passed away weeks later — on August 22nd, 2019.
“When he passed we were in the room at about 2:30 in the morning and he basically quit breathing. And I remember lying across his chest and apologizing to him,” Babe says haltingly, through his tears. “I felt like, there was something I should have been able to do — because in the past, there was always something I could do to make it better. And this was the one where that just wasn’t going to happen.”
Wiping tears from his face Babe eventually said, “I don’t think he blames me. Again, it’s just hard to deal with as a parent.”
For Babe, every single day since Luke’s passing has been hard. He takes solace in being told that it’s okay not to be okay. “I’ve read a lot about grief, and one of the things they said — there are a lot emotional booby traps out there.” Thinking about one of the triggers Babe said, “He loved Jersey Mike’s. Well, you never realize how many Jersey Mike’s shops there are until you see one and start crying.”
One thing all the Laufenberg’s appreciate are the untold number of people who’ve reached out to say how much they’ve been inspired by Luke’s strength and perseverance.
At UTEP, they were considering retiring Luke’s jersey number, but head coach Dana Dimel decided it would be better to give it to a deserving player who showed Luke’s hustle, determination, and positive attitude.
“The head coach said he had a profound effect on everybody there and everybody he had contact with,” Babe said, “which is pretty remarkable to think he’s there for three months and he made that kind of an impression on people.”
In the months following Luke’s passing, Babe has met with a number of his son’s friends for coffee during which he learned that Luke shared with them that his one worry was for the family he was leaving behind. No thoughts of himself — just those whom he loved.
“He knew there would be a sadness, obviously. I think he knew how much he was loved, certainly. It’s pretty remarkable to think that here you are, you’re 21 years old, and you’re dying, and are worried about the people you are leaving behind.”
Luke’s friends came up with the idea to have rubber wristbands made that say “Live Like Luke” — a reminder that we should make the most of each and every day…and to do it with the courage, grace, and humor that Luke displayed to the end.
“This was, and continues to be, a hundred times harder than anything we’ve ever been through in our lives,” Babe admitted. “And you just try to make it through the day, and then you get to tomorrow and then you try to get through tomorrow. And I don’t know when it ends. I know it’s different for everyone, but it’s going to be around for a long time.”
To honor Luke’s legacy, the Laufenberg’s have set up the Luke Laufenberg FIGHT Endowment Fund at UTEP, that supports student athlete football players.
If you’d like to contribute to the fund click here and make sure the Luke Laufenberg FIGHT Endowment Fund is chosen from the dropdown menu next to “Designation.”