DICKINSON, N.D. — A few weeks ago, Wahpeton (N.D.) High School junior Jacob Petermann was woken up a little earlier than usual by his mother, Connie, who claimed she had something to show him.
In front of his still sleepy eyes, she held up her phone and Jacob could barely believe what he saw.
Shaquem Griffin, a rookie linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, was talking to him. Griffin, who lost his hand at age 4 after being born with amniotic band syndrome, had made a video telling Jacob to “keep pushing and stay positive.”
Days earlier, Jacob received a signed football from Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
“When I first saw it, it was really cool. It was, I got a football from an NFL player, which is really exciting,” Petermann said. “I got the football first, then when I got the video, it was even more exciting because it’s from a Seahawks player.”
A lifelong Seattle fan, Petermann was thrilled to see the video, but the message was extra special for him because in April, he lost part of his left leg after a sports injury.
The video came via Greg Pruitt, the Glen Ullin-Hebron boys basketball coach and founder of the Little Buddy Foundation, which helps purchase prosthetics for area kids in need. He and his wife, Dawn, don’t have children of their own, so Greg seeks ways to help area kids. At the end of the 2017-18 season, he put his coaching check toward the foundation, which he’s doing again this year.
After hearing of Jacob’s story, Pruitt chose him as the first aid recipient from the Little Buddy Foundation, which was closing in on $31,000 raised in late December.
“So we started the foundation and four or five days later here’s this Wahpeton basketball player who unfortunately had to have his leg amputated and had this long road ahead of him,” Pruitt said. “It just all connected. It just made sense that this would be the first kid that we would help at the Little Buddy Foundation.”
While helping Petermann get a prosthesis is a huge gesture, Pruitt, in what he called “small acts of kindness,” was able to get in touch with the right people to have the ball and video sent to Jacob.
Through a friend of a friend, Pruitt got in touch with Buddy Baker, Griffin’s agent, and during an elk hunt in Idaho, Pruitt was guided by Darwin Vander Esch, Leighton’s father. Both Baker and Darwin Vander Esch were more than willing to bring a smile to Jacob’s face.
This isn’t the first time a professional athlete sent Jacob memorabilia. When he was in the hospital, an employee got in touch with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Prior to being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, Jimmy Butler got the message and sent signed shoes to Jacob, who is a big fan. Additionally, a handful of Minnesota Vikings players visited the hospital where Petermann was staying.
While the athletes have helped him stay encouraged and in high spirits, it was another group of people that had a greater influence on Petermann.
“What I really wanted to do, was I wanted to be in the business field and I wanted to major in business, either in marketing or accounting,” Jacob said of his previous ambitions. “But after this experience, I really kind of want to be a nurse. Just seeing the impact of how the nurses treated me, and they made me feel good even though I had been there for such a long time. They just inspired me.”
It started last January when he broke his left leg during warmups at a basketball game in Devils Lake, N.D. With the X-rays came news that he had a tumor on the femur bone. Before his bone could be fixed, the tumor had to be shrunk, so Jacob started chemotherapy and was kept in traction for three months.
Losing his leg was never on his or his family’s radar, as the doctors were confident they wouldn’t have to amputate. On March 30, Good Friday, the Petermanns got bad news. Despite being declared cancer-free, Jacob’s leg was not healing and could not be saved.
Around the same time, the Little Buddy Foundation came to life. Pruitt heard of Jacob losing his leg and reached out to Connie.
“It was really kind of crazy because the whole time we were thinking we were not going to have to go that route. We did not prepare the entire time until that day. It was like, ‘Oh, my god.’ We never really thought that this was gonna be it,” Connie Petermann said. “When he had called … you know how when something really bad happens, when something really good happens you can’t believe? It’s like, ‘Is this real?’ I was just in tears because we had basically just found out we were gonna have to go that route. I had no idea where and how, and here all of a sudden you have somebody reaching out their hand.”
Jacob is already starting work on using his prosthesis, which he said has been going well. He practices walking and standing every day and goes to therapy twice a week.
While health insurance has helped cover the “regular” prosthesis, The Little Buddy Foundation is paying for a “cheetah leg.” A cheetah leg, named for its resemblance of a cheetah’s hind leg, has a large flexible hook for the lower leg and foot, giving the wearer the ability to run and spring around.
For Pruitt, that’s the ultimate goal. While he obviously wants to help someone get back on their feet, he truly wants to help them get back on the court.
“It’s just amazing,” Jacob said of Pruitt’s help. “I haven't run in so long and I really, really want to run. I want to walk. Especially running. I feel out of shape right now.”
Petermann has been playing basketball since second grade, starting with a travel team before moving to middle school and high school. This winter, he’s hardly missed a beat as he still attends practices and travels to all the games. With his crutches nearly indiscernible, Petermann is still in the team picture wearing No. 34 and appears on the roster, listed as a 6-foot-3 forward for the Huskies.
“I still want to be a player and I want to be part of the team and just sit on the sideline,” Jacob Petermann said. “It’s really good, actually. I get to cheer my team on and I get to support them as best as I can. It feels great to be back on the court and the sideline.”
He also participates in track, previously competing in the long jump and hurdles. This year, he plans to manage the team so he can still be a part of the action.
Between Pruitt, professional athletes, doctors, community members and many others doing everything they can to help Jacob and the Petermanns, Connie said the worst situation has brought out the best in people.
“These new friendships that we’ve made. … We don’t want to be going through what we’re going through. I really can’t say anything negative because of the good stuff that comes with it,” Connie said. “We’ve met these incredible people.”