Johnnies' Brinker has a good friend on and off the field
October 9, 2018
By Mike Killeen
Nathan Brinker hopes to do two things on Saturday, Oct. 13.
One would be to help his Saint John’s University football team to a victory over its archrival, the University of St. Thomas.
The other would be to see his friend, 14-year-old Matthew Lehner, after the game.
Matthew, like Brinker, is from nearby Holdingford, Minnesota. As a 2-year-old, Lehner was diagnosed with stage 4 Medulloblastoma, a cancer which resulted in multiple malignant tumors on his brain, according to a 2015 St. Cloud Times newspaper story.
He underwent surgery, five rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation treatments and a stem-cell transplant. Within a nine-month period, his cancer was in remission.
Matthew remains cancer free, although he lives with a cerebral shunt and has no hair because of his radiation treatments.
He’ll be at the game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Clemens Stadium, which is the Johnnies’ annual Tackle Cancer game to benefit the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund.
“I think Nathan has been just a really good role model for Matthew, and offered him good support,” said Tammy Lehner, Matthew’s mom. “It’s a confidence booster (for Matthew) to have someone like Nathan, a college friend.”
“My mom and dad always bring Matthew to every home Johnnie football game,” Brinker said. “He wants to be here. He loves being here.
“He’s very open with his opinions, which is what I love about him,” Brinker said. “He calls what’s black black and what’s white white. He says the truth and whatever is on his mind.”
Even if Matthew isn’t the biggest football fan in the world.
“He will come to a football game, and he would tell me, ‘I’m just coming for you. Football is football,” Brinker said.
Brinker is a standout defensive end for the Johnnies. The preseason Lindy’s All-Division III first team selection has 27 tackles this season, including 10 tackles for loss and five quarterback sacks for a defensive unit that has allowed just 29 points in five games and recorded three shutouts.
But this relationship is about Nathan, the person.
“Nathan is Matthew’s hero not because of what he does on the football field, but because of what he does off the field,” said Gloria Brinker, Nathan’s mom. “He (Matthew) tells his mom every time, ‘I really don’t like football but I get to hang out with my buddy after, so it’s all worth it.’ ”
“With all that he (Matthew) has been through early on, just knowing the struggle that he went through, him looking up to me … it really means a lot,” Nathan Brinker said.
Matthew’s sister, Abby, was in the same class as Brinker.
“When I was in elementary school, you could just see the sadness in her face. I knew what was going on with Matthew, just because we’re family friends and we go to the same church,” Brinker said.
“I saw everything that she went through, and just the struggles the (Lehner) family had at that time. We were just always there for support.”
Through programs offered at Holdingford, Brinker became Matthew’s Book Buddy and Art Buddy. He attended games with Matthew and generally was just there for support.
When Nathan was a senior in high school, Matthew was invited to play in a Tackle Cancer game put on by the St. Cloud Renegades, a semi-professional football team, in 2015 at Clemens Stadium. Matthew scored a touchdown on his only carry of the game.
“To be able to go out there and have Nathan in the stands and his family to cheer him on, it was great for (Matthew),” Tammy Lehner said. “Just to have it at the Saint John’s field, where Nathan plays … but he (Matthew) got to go out there, too.”
“He was so excited to give Nathan a ticket so Nathan could watch him play,” Gloria Brinker said. “The Renegades gave him a choice of number … of course it was No. 52 (Brinker’s number).
“Nathan graduated that year and missed two of his friends’ graduation parties to go watch Matthew play football. Matthew was so elated that Nathan was there,” Gloria Brinker added.
Matthew will be at the Johnnie-Tommie game on Saturday as well, wearing an SJU T-shirt with No. 52 on the back, as well as an SJU cap given to him by head coach Gary Fasching.
“He (Matthew) is a really good kid. I love him to death,” Nathan Brinker said. “He’s such an amazing guy. Just with all the struggles that he went through, for him to look up to me, that really means a lot.
“For me personally, I try to strive to be the best I can be. For people to acknowledge that, like Matthew, just for him looking up to me, it really means a lot,” Nathan Brinker said.
“It’s just something that has grown over the years between our families,” Tammy Lehner said. “It’s just the kind of person Nathan is, and his parents are.”
SJU raises money for Tackle Cancer
The Johnnies have already raised over $8,000 for Tackle Cancer this fall and have now totaled more than $42,000 over the last four years.
Ninety percent of all dollars collected go directly to fund cancer research, prevention, treatment and other programs relating to the cancer community's needs.