Miracle Child: Gudz already won life battle
Place kicker Balden Gudz (17) beat cancer as a child.
Place kicker Balden Gudz (17) beat cancer as a child.
Bladen Gudz had a terrible first birthday and remembers nothing about it.

His mom, Brigitte, remembers that birthday as though it happened yesterday and is more haunted today by what might have happened than she was when it was happening.

It was that birthday, Oct. 14, 1992, that Gudz, one of three place kickers on the Jacksonville University football team, was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nerve tissue normally occurring in children. There are about only 650 cases per year in the U.S.

“It was a tumor in the upper chest and it was all tangled up in my nerves,’’ the diminutive Gudz (pronounced good-j) said. “My mom was furious because they kept saying it was pneumonia.’’

“I was always sick and unsick and they were always taking me to the doctor,’’ Gudz, a sophomore from Madison, Fla., said. Doctors, he said, thought he had pneumonia and treated him with antibiotics. Finally, Dr. Susan Cross in Tallahassee ran tests, saw something irregular, ordered more tests and that’s when the cancer was discovered.

“It was awful news,’’ Brigitte said. “When they said the word ‘cancer’ I don’t think it sunk in. I think your brain will only think at the level you can handle. It was a major dilemma because the treatment was different for a child under one and over one. We went with the stronger program.’’

Looking back, mom Gudz says it’s tougher to think about that time now than when the family lived it.

“I didn’t bother to think through what might happen because we were so focused on what was happening,’’ she said. “It is much more difficult to think about it now, to think what could have happened. He’s our miracle child.’’

She’s also very grateful for the support the town gave. The Madison community rallied around the family and their church, First United Methodist, set up a trust fund.

“We had great support,’’ she said. “I look back now and see there was a providential hand trying to show us we were supposed to get help.’’

Gudz was treated with radiation and chemotherapy at Shands Hospital in Gainesville and fortunately never really felt bad. He both learned to walk and celebrated a birthday there. Once the cancer went into remission, he hasn’t looked back and only the scars of surgery remind him of the cancer.

“I was more active than any other kid,’’ Gudz, who says he weighs 149 “after eating and with my jeans on’’ said. “I was going non-stop.’’

He played a lot of soccer, baseball and Pee Wee football (“I wasn’t a star’’) and took up place kicking in 10th grade. He won a spot on the Madison High varsity and eventually was part of a state championship team.

Following high school, Gudz said he had feelers from a variety of schools, but they wanted him to come in as a walk on which he wasn’t willing to do.

He met JU defensive coordinator Jerry Odom at an all-star game and visited the campus after an Odom invite.

He liked what he saw but one last offer came in from Valdosta State. He mulled that, but decided with four kickers on their roster, he could probably play at JU quicker so he brought his sunny disposition, he's known as "Happy Feet'' because you rarely see him in a bad mood, here.

“When I got here we had nine kickers on the roster,’’ Gudz said. “I was thinking I should have gone to Valdosta.’’

Once again, he has survived and through five games this year, he is the team’s second-leading scorer with 23 points. He also has a 35-yard field goal and 54-yard punt to his credit.

“We never thought he’d be a football player,’’ his mom said. “We were given several potential options including that he might have learning disability if we weren’t careful. Being a college athlete wasn’t what we were thinking.’’

-- Jim Nasella