Cancer survivor spends memorable weekend with Notre Dame football team

Wish granted

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Peter Zinsli asked his parents if he was going to die.

It was Jan. 4, 2012, and the floppy-haired 13-year-old stood next to his parents inside the emergency room at UCLA Medical Center, stunned.

“It was surreal, because he was so healthy,” Peter’s mother, Kathy Zinsli, said. “He’d never had a bee sting or a broken bone. He played every sport. When they said the words, they just didn’t compute.”

He had leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

He also had a lot of questions.

“I didn’t know what leukemia meant,” Peter recalled. “I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know if it was a cancer or what it would mean for me going forward. I was just thinking of how my life was going to change. The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Am I going to have a life?’

“Right after that it was, ‘What’s this new life going to be like?’”

Prior to the diagnosis, Peter Zinsli’s life was exceptionally normal. Every fall, he and his family flew to South Bend to attend a football game at Notre Dame, where his mother and grandfather both attended college.

“He was pretty much Rudy,” Kathy Zinsli said of Peter’s grandfather, Bob Findling, who couldn’t afford to attend Notre Dame out of high school but earned his executive MBA there in his 50’s. “My dad would cry if he heard the fight song.”

Like his mother and grandfather before him, Peter spent countless Saturdays with his scrawny frame hunched over those narrow wooden benches — cheering in the rain or snow, through wins or agonizing losses.

When he checked into the hospital, Peter Zinsli's family posted a leprechaun logo on his hospital door (photo courtesy Peter Zinsli).

Now, he wasn’t sure he’d live to attend another game.

When Peter Zinsli set off on the long, uncertain road of chemotherapy treatments, his family posted — what else? — a leprechaun logo on his hospital door.

***

They call him “Penalty Pete.”

Back in middle school, before leukemia came calling, Zinsli served — enthusiastically, if not always lawfully — as an undersized offensive lineman on his football team in El Segundo, Calif.

“In the first big game — I think it was the third game of the season — I got five holding penalties in a row, and my coach would not pull me out,” Peter said with a laugh. “I still don’t know why he didn’t do it, but I became notorious for that.”

Ten days after he was diagnosed, Peter was told that, thanks to an effective round of chemotherapy treatments, the cancer cells in his body had been completely eradicated.

They were gone, but not necessarily for good.

To ensure that the cancer didn’t reoccur, Peter was required to receive chemotherapy for another three and a half years. And to prevent his body from developing an immunity to any one drug, he was instructed to take a variety of chemotherapy treatments, rotating from one to another in a series of debilitating waves.

The problem, in Peter’s case, was that he developed an allergic reaction to one of those chemotherapy drugs. The result was necrotizing pancreatitis, an infection that was rapidly killing the tissue within his pancreas.

In March 2012, doctors told Peter and his family that there was nothing they could do.

“We thought he was going to die,” Kathy Zinsli said.

Instead, Peter fought. For 10 days, he was not allowed to eat or drink, a desperate attempt to flush out and kickstart his failing pancreas.

“Honestly, I was in so much pain from the pancreatitis that I didn’t really notice the hunger,” Peter said. “They filled me up with liquids and gave me all the vitamins I needed to survive.

“They said, based on the chemicals my pancreas was giving off, that I was having somewhere between 10 and 18 times the pain of childbirth.”

The pain was insufferable, and his eventual recovery was virtually unexplainable.

“His pancreas healed itself,” Kathy Zinsli said. “It was a miracle that he recovered from that.”

The doctors and nurses learned what his teammates already knew:

Peter Zinsli was never very good at letting go.

***

All Peter wanted to do was stand on the sideline.

When the Make-A-Wish foundation first approached the Zinsli family, that was the idea that popped into his head. The 18-year-old cancer-free high school senior wanted to attend a Notre Dame football game and experience it from a different angle. And if he was allowed to shake head coach Brian Kelly’s hand, well, that would be an added bonus.

The trip turned out to be so much more.

Peter and his family arrived in South Bend on Wednesday, Sept. 21, three days prior to the home game against Duke. On Thursday morning, former Irish running back Reggie Brooks and quarterback Ron Powlus gave Peter a private tour of Notre Dame Stadium and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. That afternoon, he sat in on a position meeting with the Notre Dame wide receivers.

But really, he was a quarterback.

He just didn’t know it yet.

Near the end of Thursday’s practice, Notre Dame equipment manager Adam Myers lent Peter starting quarterback DeShone Kizer’s backup uniform and helmet. He tried them on, pounded his fist on the “Play like a champion today” sign, then ran out of the tunnel.

“Kizer!” Kelly barked. “You’re out. We’ve got a better quarterback.”

For once, DeShone Kizer didn’t mind being replaced.

“Peter's awesome,” Kizer said this week. “He came in, and he's a guy who has gone through so many things that we could never imagine. It makes you truly seize the day and seize the opportunities that you get. Notre Dame does a good job with our community service and bringing in guys like Peter to really allow us to understand that we're truly blessed to be where we are, to have the abilities to go out and play the game that we love, and also to put in perspective the things that we think are hard.

“These guys are literally going out and fighting for their lives on a daily basis.”

Peter Zinsli, left, made an impression on Notre Dame starting quarterback DeShone Kizer during his visit with the team (photo courtesy Peter Zinsli).

Before he set up behind center, Kelly told Peter to yell “Go!” to snap the football, and that once he did, senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. would be open in the right side of the end zone.

“I felt mostly fear,” Peter said. “I was worried because I didn’t get to warm up at all before the throw. So I was like, ‘Hopefully I can throw it.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh crap, they’re going to snap it to me. I hope I can catch the snap, too.’”

Sure enough, he caught the snap and delivered the throw, and Hunter dropped to the turf to make the catch in the middle of the end zone. His teammates engulfed him, a mob of cheering humanity. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford lifted Peter up from behind.

Peter’s parents clapped and cried from the sideline, and as Notre Dame’s players lifted their son off the ground, a chant rose up inside a relatively empty Notre Dame Stadium.

“Pe-ter! Pe-ter! Pe-ter! Pe-ter!”

“If I had to rank my favorite memories, I’d say hearing I was cancer-free,” Peter said, “and right below that, the touchdown pass.”

Peter attended the pep rally with the team on Friday and stood on the sidelines during the 38-35 upset loss on Saturday afternoon. Even in a three-day visit, he didn’t feel like a temporary guest.

“It was like a brotherhood,” Peter said. “I almost feel like I’m a part of it now.”

Soon, maybe he will be. As he wraps up high school this spring, Peter Zinsli volunteers on Saturday mornings at the UCLA Medical Center with the doctors and nurses who treated him, spending time with other children who are battling various stages and forms of cancer.

“Penalty Pete” is also in the process of submitting college applications.

“Notre Dame’s my first choice,” he said, “as you might imagine.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Peter Zinsli beat leukemia, then threw a touchdown pass inside Notre Dame Stadium (photo courtesy Peter Zinsli).