A long time coming: Negaunee’s Erik Salminen’s journey to the field

10/3/2019 | Feature | By Eden Laase
Eden.Laase@TheUpbeatSports.com
Negaunee

S ixteenth birthday parties are one of the apexes of being a teenager, right next to prom and high school graduation.

When Erik Salminen turned 16 he had all the pieces of the perfect day: he had a cake, his family sang happy birthday, and his grandma hand-delivered a card that said he had a car waiting for him.

A car, what a dream come true for a teenage boy. But he doesn’t really remember that moment. He was too groggy. Too out of it, sitting up in a hospital bed fresh out of surgery.

In truth, that day was anything but perfect.

How could it be when Salminen woke up two days before his big day, and the universe said, “Happy Sweet 16 Erik, time to get a tumor removed.”

It’s a shocking scene to think about, a birthday party in a hospital room, the patient blowing out candles after his head was cut open.

But it wasn’t all darkness and depression. And in the end, Salminen’s car wasn’t even the best present he got. That was a bit belated.

The best present Salminen ever received came two years later on a beat up field under Negaunee’s Friday night lights.

Salminen was always a happy baby, a literal bundle of joy. He was hardly ever fussy, and there were rarely even tears. Then one day, he wouldn’t stop crying.

“It was very scary,” his mom, Katie Salminen said. “He was always a happy baby. Never cried, nothing. Then one weekend we’re downstate visiting my sister for a holiday, and he kept crying and arching his back.”

Erik was just 10 months old when he was first diagnosed with a brain tumor. His head was still marked with soft divots, as baby’s skulls don’t fuse together fully until they are nearly 2. And yet, he already needed surgery.

Erik and Katie spent the next five months living in the hospital, with Erik’s dad working and visiting as often as he could.

From there it was constant checkups and MRIs, hospital trips, complicated medical terms and doctor’s visits. Slowly, Erik’s care routine became normal to him, and now, even if he wanted to hide everything he’s been through, the high school senior couldn’t.

Extending from the base of his neck, part way up the back of his head is an eight-inch scar that resembles a zipper, visible through his sandy blond hair.

Salminen had another surgery at 14, then another — one that ended up being his last — at 16.

Kids often have “shoot-for-the-moon” type goals. And Erik has big dreams too, but mostly, he spent his middle school and high school days dreaming of little things. Erik didn’t care about being extraordinary, all he wanted was to be ordinary.

All he wanted was to be a normal kid.

And normal kids play football.

We knew he had a strong leg because of his soccer background, so when we didn’t have a kicker his sophomore year we thought, ‘Why not? Let’s give him a chance.’ ”

Paul Jacobson

Erik grew up watching Michigan and dreamed of being a wide receiver. But he was only able to play non-contact sports growing up, so he stuck to things like tennis and soccer.

It was after years of playing soccer that he had an idea: he would be a kicker.

Because of his soccer background, Erik had a strong leg, so he decided to teach himself to kick. As it turns out, he was pretty good at it.

Soon, as a sophomore, he earned a spot kicking on Negaunee’s varsity football team.

“We saw him play at the freshman level,” coach Paul Jacobson said. “We knew he couldn’t do too much, so at the freshman level I think they actually kicked off and then ran him off the field, just because he couldn’t have any contact. We knew he had a strong leg because of his soccer background, so when we didn’t have a kicker his sophomore year we thought, ‘Why not? Let’s give him a chance.’ ”

He’s had some exciting moments as a kicker. In one practice, he made a 50-yarder, and last season he made a game-winning kick at home against Hancock.

“The clock was ticking down, and Jason (Waterman) ran the ball up the middle,” Erik said. “The clock was still ticking and he spiked it with 4 seconds left. Coach was calling my name and I thought, ‘Oh great.’  I was nervous. But once the ball was snapped I felt better. I just did my normal routine. ‘One, two, kick.’ I kept my head down and then when I looked up I saw the ref’s hands in the air. When I turned around I saw the whole fan section running towards me.”

The game-winning kick was a moment of beautiful excitement, as his teammates and Negaunee fans all celebrated around Erik. But, he wanted more.

Erik never dreamed of being a kicker. He dreamed of running routes and catching touchdown passes. He dreamed of being a receiver. He dreamed of playing football, really playing football, not just kicking.

Throughout high school, Jacobson joked with the Salminens that he was going to put Erik in a go-route. Waterman would fling the ball out deep, and Erik would catch it without the threat of contact. Everyone would laugh, knowing it wasn’t happening, but Erik still held out hope.

Every day in practice he would do non-contact drills with the receivers.

He’s blessed with great speed, and after Drew DuShane, he’s the fastest on the team. At least, that’s what Jacobson said. Waterman is willing to bet Erik could beat DuShane in a race. It’s close though, so he’s not willing to bet big money, but still, that means something.

“DuShane is the UP sprint champ, but Erik, I don’t know how much I’d put on the line, but I would be willing to put maybe $5 on the line that Erik could beat Drew in a race,” Waterman said. “To what length I’m not sure, but in terms of running a go-route, we call Erik “Deer Legs” because he just keeps going.”

Erik is also smart, “freakishly smart,” as Waterman said, before comparing him to the character Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. He’s the kind of kid that seems to know everything about everything. So much so, that one time, Waterman got 1 % higher on a pre-calc quiz and teased Erik about it for a week. Waterman lived it up that week because he knew he probably wouldn’t get a higher score than Erik again.

He’s intelligent when it comes to football, too.

“Even if he doesn’t play a position he knows how to play it,” Waterman said. “He is like a scientist. He can break down a play or position and understand how it works, The kid is just smart.”

Smart, fast and hardworking: his best traits combined to make Erik the perfect scout team player.

“We would be getting ready for a defensive gameplan and Drew (Dushane) would be guarding him, and he would be frying Drew,” Waterman said. “And then he would be frying me and frying everyone. It really made us check ourselves on defense.”

The whole time we were driving down there I was thinking, ‘Man, what if my MRI was clear? What if I could play football for once?’ "

Erik Salminen

But no kid wants to be just a practice player. Every game Erik watched his teammates celebrate touchdowns, and he always had the same thought: “What if I could be a part of that?”

Finally, in week five of his senior season, Erik got his chance.

That surgery he had at 16 removed his last tumor completely, and now, his check-ups are to make sure everything is clear. 

After making the trip multiple times a year for the entirety of his life, Erik is used to the seven-hour drive he takes to Ann Arbor for checkups.

This time, he was hopeful.

“I was hoping that they were going to say clear,” he said. “The whole time we were driving down there I was thinking, ‘Man, what if my MRI was clear? What if I could play football for once?’ I was so happy when I saw it, I had to contain myself because I was around a whole bunch of doctors.

“There are still a few cells. They are so microscopic that you can’t get to every one, but the MRI scan they pulled up two weeks ago I saw, there was nothing there. We believe it is as clear as can be. Gone.”

“Gone.”

That one word holds so much weight for Erik. It holds things he’s been dreaming of since he first watched football, since he first saw his friends playing together, and since he first learned he couldn’t take part. “Gone” meant a door that’s been shut for so many years was finally open.

“I was waiting for this my whole entire life,” he said. “Growing up I was told I could only play a select few sports, just to keep me from getting hit. There was this whole barrier that set me back from other kids. I always heard all of these other kids get to talk about their big plays, and I wanted to get my chance.”

Erik was cleared to play by his doctor, and on Monday, Sept. 23, he came to practice bursting with excitement. Erik Salminen was finally going to play football.

But as the week progressed that excitement was gradually replaced with nerves, and by Friday, Salminen was so full of jitters that his body was physically shaking.

“I had to tell him, ‘Relax.’ And whenever we broke the huddle I would say, ‘Just catch the ball. I’m the one who worries about getting it to you. You are going to beat whoever it is you’re running against. Just catch it. That is all you have to worry about. You don’t have to worry about taking a hit. You are running straight. You don’t have any technique to worry about. You just run and you catch it and that is it,’ ” Waterman remembers saying before Friday’s game. “I think that calmed him down. But he was the happiest person I’ve ever seen on Monday, and the happiest person I’ve ever seen on Friday after the game, but in between, he was nervous and jittery.”

Erik wasn’t the only one who was nervous.

Waterman was, too. He was nervous because he wanted his friend and teammate to play well, he was nervous because he knew what it meant to Erik, and in all honesty, he was nervous that Erik wouldn’t be able to catch the ball.

The quarterback had confidence in his new receiver, but he was still worried. Erik had displayed skills in practice, but the Miners had never seen him prove his abilities in a game because he never had the chance.

Now, he did.

Practice was full of more setbacks in the week leading up to the game against Ishpeming. Erik and Waterman stayed late and came to the field early, but no matter what, they couldn’t get their timing right. Every time Waterman let the ball go, it was either short or long. They had never really played together, and the teammates were having trouble connecting.

According to Waterman, he threw to Salminen over 50 times in practice, and only five resulted in a catch.

Eventually, they ran out of practice time. The Miners had a game to play — their homecoming game against rival Ishpeming.

With less than a minute left in the first quarter, Jacobson decided to run the route he’d joked with Erik’s parents about for so many years. The Miners broke the huddle, snapped the ball and Waterman dropped back. He planted his foot to make the throw and slipped forward six inches. But somehow, the ball landed perfectly in Erik’s hands. He hauled it in and ran into the end zone.

When the ball hit his hands his mom muttered, “What the heck?!” to herself. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing and had to do a double-take to confirm it was her son running into the end zone. When she realized it was, Katie started crying.

Six weeks into his senior season and Erik Salminen had his first touchdown.

He’d waited his whole life for this moment, and Salminen handled it like a seasoned professional.

“The first touchdown he had was like he had been doing it his whole life,” Jacobson said. “To see those emotions, see his expression and see him be speechless, it was just a huge moment. To be where he’s been and to go through what he’s gone through, and to be a part of this team like he was on Friday compared to the previous three years is a testament to his character and the kind of person he is.”

Erik would finish the game with 201 yards and three touchdowns. But more importantly, he finished it as a normal kid, playing football like everyone else.

“It felt nice getting my first touchdown, I mean every kid dreams about that,” he said. “I felt like I was able to be a kid for once in my life, without any setbacks. I loved being able to have that freedom. Being on the field, I just wanted to make the most of it.”

Erik’s story is the kind you don’t want to think about too long if you don’t have to. As inspiring as his football debut was, finally getting to play after all this time, it still doesn’t change what he’s been through. No amount of touchdowns can erase three surgeries to remove tumors, or a birthday in the hospital. It’s despairing and confusing. It’s unexplainable, and yet it’s real. It’s a part of his life that can never go away. We see a scar and the heartwarming story, but not the bad times, the MRIs and the hospital beds. Erik goes through it all, every day of his young life.

“It’s not fair that Erik was born with that condition and didn’t have as many opportunities as most teenage boys growing up,” Waterman said. “He couldn’t play middle school football and I’m sure that made him pretty upset back then. I’m sure that was really hard for him not being able to be all in. He could just kick, and for a long time even if he did kick he had to run off the field. He couldn’t even make the tackle.”

And yet, Erik goes about his life with a smile every day. He goes to class and gets good grades. He works on the weekends. He plays football. He scores touchdowns. He celebrates with his teammates.

All those things make up Erik’s life. It’s not fair, it’s not perfect, and it’s not normal.

But he is.

Erik Salminen is what he’s always wanted to be: A normal kid. 

Eden Laase

Co-founder
Eden is a co-founder of Upbeat. She has covered pro sports as a Sports Illustrated intern and chronicled Gonzaga’s Final Four run. Recently, she covered Michigan Tech hockey for the Daily Mining Gazette. Eden graduated from Gonzaga with a degree in journalism.

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