April 13, 2024
Aaron Knapp, 17, is ready for a big junior season after months of chemotherapy treatment earlier this year.

MOUNTAIN VIEW – When Aaron Knapp would close his eyes last spring, his hospital bed became a football stadium and the chemotherapy drip in his arm had no effect on his throwing motion.

The St. Francis High School quarterback was not reliving past victories. Instead, he envisioned the day he would lead his team onto the field.

That day will be Friday.

Since the end of last season, Knapp successfully fought off lymphoma, going through nine weeks of chemotherapy to make it to Friday night’s home game in Mountain View against San Diego-area powerhouse Helix.

When the St. Francis offense steps onto the field, Knapp, 17, will be under center.

“It was definitely a journey, but there was never any doubt in my mind that I would be there,” Knapp said.

St. Francis quarterback Aaron Knapp throws during practice at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

That journey began in November 2021, when Knapp was listening to a teacher in a freshman-year art class. While absent-mindedly rubbing his neck, Knapp felt a small lump.

Knapp said he was concerned, as were his parents Brandon and Tracy. Over the next year, he underwent dozens of medical tests, but doctors could not arrive at a diagnosis.

It wasn’t until the mass had become noticeably larger that the family decided to get it removed, regardless of what it was.

“I was always monitoring it, and never took it lightly,” Knapp said. “I advise anyone that has something like that to get checked out. You never know.”

After surgery last December came the diagnosis: lymphoma.

The Knapp family took the news in stride, but some close to them were understandably stunned.

“My heart genuinely stopped,” said Jackson Cahoon, recalling the phone call from his football teammate and childhood best friend. “My body went cold.”

Knapp had made a name for himself on the football field just weeks earlier. Starting in place of injured senior Matthew Dougherty, he had led a 31-12 victory over rival Bellarmine on Oct. 28, completing 12 of 14 passes for 208 yards.

“Going into that week, it being homecoming and everything, I was amped up,” said Knapp, whose mother attended St. Francis and impressed upon her son the importance of the rivalry.

The next game was even better for Aaron: three touchdowns in a 35-13 victory against Archbishop Mitty.

St. Francis High’s Aaron Knapp(12) passes the ball to St. Francis High’s Andrew Adkison(11) during the second half of the St. Francis vs Archbishop Mitty high school football game at Foothill College, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, Los Altos, Calif.(Thien-An Truong for Bay Area News Group) 

But after the season ended, Knapp knew that polishing his passing skills was the least of his worries.

Starting in January, he and his parents made weekly trips to City of Hope Hospital, a renowned facility located in Duarte, around 20 miles north of Los Angeles.

The Knapps leaned on their faith to get through the ordeal.

“You either believe in God and your faith or you don’t, and I think it gets people through a lot of things,” said Knapp’s father, Brandon, who played football at San Jose State in the 1990s.

On treatment days, when Aaron looked around the hospital, it wasn’t self-pity that consumed him. He felt fortunate.

“Not everyone is gonna make it,” he said. “Seeing people going through a late stage like that, and seeing people in tremendous pain, it’s something that makes you more sensitive.”

Knapp also depended on a familiar face back home. Matt Scharrenberg, an assistant football coach at St. Francis, is a lymphoma survivor. His cancer went into remission in 2021.

Scharrenberg sent Knapp the same contemporary Christian songs that helped him through chemotherapy. The coach, who teaches history at the school, helped keep Knapp’s spirits high with encouraging texts and the occasional meme.

“A 16-year-old having that diagnosis, it’s a lot different than a 45-year-old guy who can make his peace with his life,” Scharrenberg said.

St. Francis quarterback Aaron Knapp, right, chats with St. Francis head football coach Greg Calcagno during practice at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

“It meant something to have him in my corner knowing he went through the same thing,” Knapp said. “He understood it better than maybe even my parents could, since he’s been through it.”

Knapp found another source of strength in Mountain View. Because he took chemotherapy through an IV in his arm, rather than through his chest, Knapp was still able to work out with his teammates.

Brandon Knapp said that after one round of chemotherapy on a Friday, his son was in a rush to get back to the Bay Area so he could run for St. Francis’ track team the next day.

“We tried to tone him down a little bit,” longtime St. Francis football coach Greg Calcagno said. “It’s like ‘Hey, I don’t need you to be ready in April. We need you to be ready in August. So slow down and take care of yourself.’”

After nine weeks of long drives south, chemotherapy, pain, practice, encouragement and faith-based optimism, Knapp won his biggest fight.

He was cancer-free.

Thank you to all my teammates, coaches, family members, my church, and everyone for having my back and being with me through this time. Prayer never fails. God wins. pic.twitter.com/wLEYs0CRTs

— aaron knapp (@aaronknapp_) April 20, 2023

He celebrated with a meal he wasn’t allowed to have while battling the disease: a burger and a milkshake.

“Some of the best food I’ve had in my life,” Knapp said.

Having been given a clean bill of health, the quarterback spent the rest of the offseason working to get back to peak physical condition.

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Knapp’s drive and optimism throughout his ordeal led to his teammates voting him as the first junior team captain in Calcagno’s 11-year tenure as St. Francis’ coach.

The season will be challenging. St. Francis’ non-league schedule includes Helix and De La Salle. Then comes the West Catholic Athletic League gauntlet, followed most likely by section and possibly regional playoffs.

But after everything Knapp has gone through, he’s already notched the season’s biggest victory.

Now, it’s on to the games.

“I feel ready,” Knapp said.

St. Francis quarterback Aaron Knapp stands on the football field before practice at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
St. Francis head football coach Greg Calcagno speaks with a player during practice at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
St. Francis quarterback Aaron Knapp throws during practice at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)