Pumas’ Luft overcomes long odds

Jake Luft runs at the end of wrestling practice at Maria Carrillo High School, Dec. 21, 2010. (CRISTA JEREMIASON/PD).

ByPHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Maria Carrillo had another successful cross-country season in 2010, placing second in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions in the North Bay League finals and collecting a league-high six individual top-10 finishes at the meet. The boys and girls both finished sixth at the North Coast Section championships.

Yet the signature moment for the Pumas in 2010 may have come at a routine practice in mid-September.

Cross-country coach Greg Fogg has instituted a minimum fitness standard at the school.

Any student can train with his team, but until passing the standard — 3,200 meters (about 2 miles) in 14 minutes for the boys, 16:30 for the girls — you can’t race in a Maria Carrillo jersey.

Some kids pass the fitness standard and hardly break a sweat. It was more of a labor for junior Jake Luft. He had failed to crack the 14-minute mark on two previous occasions when he told Fogg he wanted to try again on Sept. 14. Fogg sent away the rest of the team for a 10-minute warm-up, and asked assistant coach Michael Pointer to pace Luft through eight laps on the quarter-mile track.

After a couple laps, a few of the other runners spontaneously gravitated to the track and began to run alongside Luft. By the time he passed the halfway point, his convoy had begun to swell. Cross-country teams are famously tight-knit and supportive, but this was a little different. Maybe his teammates remembered the shy, stick-skinny kid who had joined the team that year, and the stories about how he had nearly died four years earlier.

From the sideline, Fogg watched and quietly rooted for Luft to hit his mark. Fogg has a close bond with all of his runners, but this was different. Maybe he was thinking of his own son, Garrett, who had died of viral meningitis at UC San Francisco Children’s Hospital six days before Luft was checked in to the very same hospital wing; or his daughter, Leanne, who fought through a debilitating autoimmune condition called Graves’ disease to become a champion runner.

By Luft’s final lap, the entire team had joined him. More than 50 kids crowded the lanes. A soccer match was in progress in the middle of the field, and the soccer spectators had now turned to watch the track, where Luft’s teammates were running stride-for-stride and shouting encouragement. “C’mon, Jake! You can do it! Almost there!”

One of those teammates was sophomore Harrison Luft. He had always loved and admired his older brother, but this was different. Harrison bears four scars around his waist where doctors extracted 160 pulls of bone marrow, which they then transplanted into Jake’s depleted system. Without that marrow, Jake never would have made it this far.

“I was just hoping, ‘Please make it, please make it,’” Fogg remembered.

Jake sprinted the final 150 yards and crossed the finish line in 13:52. The next day, he wore the Carrillo jersey in a race at Spring Lake.

A body in rebellion

Jake Luft played baseball, soccer and tennis growing up, and was pretty much a typical kid at Austin Creek Elementary School, just a few blocks from his house in the Skyhawk neighborhood. After his seventh-grade year at Rincon Valley Middle School, though, he started getting stomachaches. He got sick a lot, and then he began falling asleep at all hours, nodding off in the back of the car or at the swimming pool.

The Lufts’ family doctor did some blood work and took X-rays and phoned in agitation, telling Shannon Luft to take her other kids — the youngest boy is Parker — to a friend’s house and get Jake to UCSF immediately. There wasn’t enough blood in the boy’s veins.

He was on the verge of cardiac arrest.

Jake got several emergency blood transfusions, and three weeks later the Lufts got the diagnosis: aplastic anemia, a condition in which the body stops producing red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets – the currency of the circulatory system.

You can’t keep receiving blood transfusions endlessly. Jake needed a bone marrow transplant, and Harrison proved to be a perfect match — what the doctors call a 10/10.

Harrison woke up with a bowl full of congratulatory Life Savers candies by his bedside after having the marrow extracted, but would experience low-back soreness for several months. For Jake, the transplant was like a painful rebirth. Before giving him new marrow, doctors had to dose him with a drug called ATG, an immunosuppressant, and then a round of industrial-strength chemotherapy. It killed the bad germs, the good germs and everything in between. It was like napalming Jake’s immune system.

He lay almost three months in the “7 Long” ward of the hospital, where many patients spend their final days. Shannon calls it “a serious floor.” She was by his side Monday through Friday, and Jake’s father (the Lufts are divorced) would take the weekend shifts.
“I realized my other sons, their life is going normal, and there’s this whole other world that’s down there that nobody should ever see,” Shannon said.

A gradual re-emergence

When Jake finally began to produce his own blood cells and platelets, he came home to what amounted to a prison cell decorated like a middle-schooler’s bedroom. His immune system compromised, his energy sapped by a dozen different drugs (grafting medicine, painkillers, etc.), Jake didn’t go anywhere for eight months. Friends weren’t allowed to visit.

“It was boring,” Jake said. “You can’t really do anything.”

By the summer of 2007, Jake began his gradual re-emergence into the world. He’d never last more than a couple weeks at school without getting sick, so he got most of his schooling at home for three years. It was a time of stops and starts, maybe the hardest period of all for the family.

Slowly, Jake got some strength back. Last summer, he got a job at Oliver’s Market on Montecito. He rode his bike there and back. The first day, he threw up when he got home.
“It was tough,” Shannon said. “It was only eight hours a week, but he was so tired. He’d come home sheet-white and ready to collapse.”

Hard as the job was, it proved to be a turning point for Jake as he adapted to the physical demands. He attended Camp Okizu, a week-long camp that UCSF holds for its adolescent survivors over the summer, and came home stronger yet.

Jake, now 17, finally enrolled full-time at Maria Carrillo this year. He then announced he was going out for cross-country. The decision took some guts. It’s a popular sport at Carrillo, and one in which Harrison had already established himself. The middle Luft had run varsity as a freshman, and entered the 2010 season as one of the better distance runners in Sonoma County.

“I think he has never been affected by worrying about what anybody else thinks. Never,” Shannon said of Jake. “So he’s very strong mentally, and has always kind of done his own thing, in his own time frame.”

Progress in black and white

Predictably, Jake was physically overwhelmed at first. During the depths of his ordeal, he had shrunk to 85 pounds and stopped growing taller. He sprouted several inches in the past few years and bounced between 120 and 125 pounds during this cross-country season. But he didn’t have any stamina.

“I couldn’t even run the 20 minutes at the beginning,” Jake said. “I would just come back earlier than everyone else.”

The day after a tough practice, he could hardly get out of bed, his legs and joints were so sore.

Over the course of the season, though, Jake improved his 3-mile time by more than three minutes. He wasn’t going to challenge the frontrunners, but he had joined the pack. And he had quietly become an inspiration to his teammates.

“Just this kid, who’s come back from almost being nothing,” Harrison said. “He’s been laying in bed for years, and now he’s coming out and running. Just amazing.”

At the same time, cross-country seemed to have a positive effect on Jake. We love to talk about sports and how it builds character in our young people. Much of it is bluster, but in this case you can see the effect.

For one thing, cross-country gave Jake a peer group. He had spent much of three years in social isolation, and had fallen a year behind his former classmates. He basically started back to high school with no friends except Harrison, but he quickly developed relationships on the team.

Running also made Jake more confident in his abilities. As Fogg notes, cross-country progress is measured in black and white. You can check your times daily, and they will tell you without remorse whether you’re improving. Jake could see himself getting faster and faster.

“I think he started to trust his body again,” Shannon said. “It’s like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ “
Jake’s story would be a good one even if he had hung up his running shoes and rested at least until the spring, when he and Harrison plan to run track. But Jake surprised everyone again and went out for the Maria Carrillo wrestling team. He’s currently grappling at 125 pounds, though he has yet to represent the Pumas in an interscholastic match.

“I’ve got four kids at that weight class, and he’s No. 4 on the depth chart,” Carrillo wrestling coach Tim Bruce said. “But he’s ready. He’s been in some challenge matches, and he’s gotten more aggressive. He’s been in the matches. No one’s walking on him.”

Shannon fretted when she heard of Jake’s decision. So did the Lufts’ family doctor, and Fogg as well. Cross-country was grueling, but wrestling? Jake doesn’t have the muscle mass built up. He may not be ready for a contact sport. He won’t have Harrison watching his back. The mats are crawling with germs, and…

Oh, well. They’ll all deal with it.

“Just trying something new again,” Jake Luft said.

You get the feeling those five words could become the catchphrase of a very interesting life.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.