‘Team Grit’: School, community rally around Free State teachers after son’s cancer diagnosis

Nolan Henderson, a family and consumer sciences teacher and assistant football coach at Free State High School, enjoys a snuggle with his son, 4-month-old Grit, in this undated family photo. Grit was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare kind of skeletal muscle cancer, just after Christmas.

In the classroom and on the field, assistant football coach and family and consumer sciences teacher Nolan Henderson has long stressed the importance of grit to his students at Free State High School.

“In education, we talk about, ‘How do we get kids to have more grit?'” Henderson said, describing himself as an early adopter of that teaching philosophy.

But Henderson’s favorite buzzword has taken on a new, strengthened meaning in recent months, at least for the students and staff at Free State. Grit means to persevere in the face of adversity, to show courage and tenacity. It’s also the name Henderson and his wife, Laura, gave their son. At just 4 months old, the little boy has shown a lot of grit.

Diagnosed just after Christmas with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare kind of skeletal muscle cancer, Grit will soon begin his fourth round of chemotherapy at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The entire treatment process, including multiple rounds of chemo and radiation followed by surgery, could last up to a year, Henderson said. But the family isn’t alone in the fight.

Since hearing of Grit’s diagnosis last month, Free State students and staff have rallied behind Henderson and his wife, Laura, who teaches special education at the school.

Laura Henderson holds her son, 4-month-old Grit Henderson, in this undated photo. Laura her husband Nolan Henderson are both teachers at Free State High School, where students and staff have recently led fundraising efforts in support of the family.

The student council has already sold more than a thousand wristbands (they read, “FS has Grit, Grit has FS”) with proceeds benefiting the Henderson family, he said. The school’s dance and cheer squad began selling “No one fights alone – Team Grit” T-shirts in mid-January, already far surpassing their initial fundraising goal of $1,500.

“I think it’s really resonated with a lot of students,” said Dena Johnston, head cheer and dance coach at Free State.

The Henderson family’s story has reminded students “that cancer doesn’t discriminate” — that even young, healthy people are susceptible to disease, Johnston said. Students have seen that tragedy can befall just about anyone, she added, and when it does, communities can rally in the most “remarkable” ways.

“We’ve gotten phone calls and texts and emails from people all over the place,” Johnston said. “Family and alumni all over the U.S. have been reaching out.”

Efforts to help Grit and his family have spilled out into the larger Lawrence community, too, perhaps most notably in a GoFundMe campaign that, as of Tuesday afternoon, has raised nearly $33,000 in support of the Hendersons.

“It’s kids at school that (neither) my wife nor I have ever taught. It’s been the football families and the cheer and dance squad and the student council and random community members,” said Nolan Henderson, who’s even received T-shirt orders from old classmates and friends now living abroad. “It’s so humbling. It’s hard to not get emotional and tear up thinking about it.”

The outpouring of support has brought comfort to Nolan Henderson and his family, who have been mostly separated since Grit’s diagnosis in late December. Laura Henderson has been living in Memphis full-time while Grit undergoes treatment at St. Jude’s, with her daughter, Ella, staying with relatives in Lawrence and occasionally visiting Memphis. Nolan makes the journey whenever he can.

And, though Grit’s acceptance into St. Jude’s program covers most of the procedures he’ll undergo in the next year, the financial burden still weighs heavily on the Henderson family. Having used up all their vacation hours on maternity and paternity leave, the couple has had to rely on donated leave from Free State and district colleagues.

Even so, it’s not nearly enough to cover the many months Laura will spend in Memphis as Grit undergoes treatment.

The little boy seems to be taking it all in stride, Nolan Henderson said. “He’s tougher than I would be, I can tell you that,” the football coach joked.

“He does it with a smile on his face … And it just seems like he has bought into his name, and, while we’re going to have some difficulties in this fight, he’s going to win it,” Nolan said of his son. “He seems to have that mentality of, ‘No matter what life throws at me, I’m going to attack it with fortitude and conviction, and I’ll persevere through the rough times.'”

Nolan said he named his son Grit because he wanted his boy to work hard, to selflessly “do anything to help out his community.” Now, Nolan said, “he’s got to earn it, really, for his survival.”

Nolan Henderson has faith. His baby is tough. And Nolan is a firm believer in miracles — maybe, he said, 12 weeks of chemotherapy will be enough to beat the cancer. Even so, he doesn’t expect his family to be back in Lawrence, reunited and back to their regular lives, for at least a year.

In the meantime, the teacher says he’s “happy to know” that true “All-American, Midwestern values” are very much alive and well in Lawrence.

“While we know we’ll never be able to pay it all back, we’ll definitely pay it forward,” Nolan Henderson said of the community’s support. “That I do know.”

The public is encouraged to attend the Free State boys varsity basketball game against Olathe West on Feb. 13. Johnston said the goal is to have as many fans wearing “Team Grit” shirts packing the stands as possible. She also hopes to present the Henderson family with a check that evening from her squad’s T-shirt fundraiser. Tip-off is 7 p.m. at Free State, 4700 Overland Drive.