Hancock’s Dawson Kero overcame a tumor in his spine to become a state champion

Hancock’s Dawson Kero makes a save in front of Houghton’s Seth Francois Tuesday, at the Houghton County Arena. At 14, Kero overcame a tumor in his spine and became a state champion the following season. He still has to go in for check-ups every six months to make sure the tumor doesn’t return. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HANCOCK — Sometimes it’s easy for Dawson Kero to forget. Nowadays his life is hockey, baseball, football and more hockey. It’s being at home with his nine siblings or hanging out with his friends. But four years ago it wasn’t like that — not at all. Four years ago it was excruciating pain, hospitals and X-rays. It was terrified parents and a confused 14-year-old who just wanted his life back. Most days he can make it feel like a distant memory, but sometimes an inquiring mind looks down at Kero’s spine and sees a few inch long, 2-centimeter thick patch of skin, marked by the bumpy unevenness of flesh that has healed back together. And sometimes the person can’t help but ask, “Hey Dawson, what’s that scar from?” 

Then Kero is forced to remember. 

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It’s March 11, 2015, and Dawson Kero is lying awake in his hotel room. He’s just played arguably the best hockey game of his life, and Hancock is one win away from being crowned the state champion. The lights have been turned out, but with this much excitement boiling inside him, Kero knows he won’t get much sleep. 

In another room, coach Dan Rouleau knows the Bulldogs wouldn’t be playing for a state title if it wasn’t for his sophomore goalie. Hancock could have easily lost to Cranbrook, but instead, the Bulldogs came away with a 2-1 overtime win, made possible by a Kero save in regulation.

A Cranbrook player received a pass in the slot and suddenly was all alone in front of Kero. He pulled his stick back and shot, but Kero was too quick, gloving the puck out of the air. 

For Kero, no moment is too big to shake his sense of calm. The save against Cranbrook, he said “looked pretty cool,” but that’s about all the reaction he will give. It’s not that Kero doesn’t care. He does — a lot, and the Division 3 state title holds a permanent place in his heart. It is the kind of story he will share with his own kids someday, and grandkids after that. He’s calm because he has to be. If Hancock wants to win, the Bulldogs need a fierce competitor in the net, but they also need someone who keeps things on an even keel. That’s Kero: never too high, never too low. Right in the middle where he needs to be. 

“Dawson has been like that since his freshman year when he became our starter,” Rouleau said. “He is so calm, cool and collected. If he lets in a bad goal, he lets it go. If he makes a great save, he lets it go.”

Rouleau has coached his share of goalies over his 23-year tenure at Hancock, but Kero, he says, is mentally tougher than almost any of them. That’s what makes him stand out, and is the reason Rouleau thinks Kero will have success on the ice in college. He’s the kind of player that never dwells on anything, good or bad. But tonight, as he lays in an unfamiliar hotel bed, Kero allows himself to bask in the moment.

“I can’t believe I’m playing in a state championship tomorrow,” he thinks. 

Especially since a year and a few months earlier, Kero was lying awake for a much different reason.

During his freshman year, Kero started waking up randomly in the middle of the night with pain in his tailbone. At first, it happened once or twice a month, then once or twice a week. Then it was every night. 

Kero has never been one to talk about his problems, preferring instead to tough it out and deal with them himself. He casually mentioned the pain to his mom and she took him to a chiropractor, but things didn’t improve. Finally, Kero couldn’t hide it any longer, and the 14-year-old told his mom just how bad the pain really was. 

“Eventually I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t move,” he said. “I remember I would be laying in bed and I would have to lay like a board because anything I moved would send a sharp pain throughout my body.”

The Keros spent the next few months frantically trying to figure out what was wrong. Dawson’s mom Joan took him to chiropractors, acupuncturists and doctors, but nothing worked. They did X-rays and MRIs, but the cause of Dawson’s extreme discomfort couldn’t be determined.  

Joan remembers a month-long stretch where Dawson missed 16 days of school, and the two were up every night as he tried to find a comfortable position to sleep in. The pain was agonizing, and with every day that passed without answers, Joan became increasingly worried about her son. 

She prayed for guidance and prayed that her son wouldn’t fall into a depression. With nothing to occupy his mind but the pain and lack of sleep, Joan feared the worst for Dawson. 

“I was so worried about him getting stuck in this tunnel of pain,” she said. “I was worried he wouldn’t be able to see past it.”

One day after Dawson had gone in for another MRI, Joan got a phone call from his doctor. The voice on the other end of the line explained that they had made a mistake and X-rayed the wrong section of Dawson’s spine. But the mistake turned out to be the answer to her prayers. The accidental MRI showed a glimpse of something in his lower spine, and Dawson was brought in for more screenings and eventually, doctors found a tumor. Joan described it as being the size and shape of a breakfast sausage, wrapped inside a bundle of nerves and pressing down on Dawson’s tailbone. 

For a moment, the terrible connotations that come with the word “tumor” didn’t hit home for Dawson’s parents. They were swept up with actually having information that could help their son.

“When we finally found out what it was, I was relieved in a sense because we finally found an answer,” Joan said. “So we didn’t really register the fear around it because we were so thankful to finally know the reason he was in such pain.”

Then Dawson and his parents made a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and within 24 hours he was in surgery. Only then did the fear start to kick in as unanswered questions swirled in their heads.

“Could it be cancerous?”

“Could there be more than one tumor?”

“Will the surgery paralyze him?” 

Dawson didn’t know what to feel. 

“I didn’t know much about it because I was so young, but I could tell from my parents that they were obviously really scared and they were trying to see what the best option was for me because I was in so much pain,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was cancerous or not, but we just had to push through it.”

When Dawson came out of surgery, his family got the best possible news: there was only one tumor, it was benign and Dawson could still walk. 

But even today, the scare isn’t all the way over. Dawson has to go in every six months to make sure nothing new has developed because often tumors grow back in the first few years after removal. He admits that the process takes an emotional toll, but he responds to the adversity in typical Dawson fashion. 

“You can’t do much except hope for the best,” he said. 

So far the best is what he’s gotten, and no moment was better than the state title in 2015. Hancock has only won two in the modern era, and the first came in 1999 — the year Dawson was born. 

When Hancock returned from beating Grand Rapids Catholic Central 4-2 in the title game, Dawson and the Bulldogs were welcomed by a parade and a community of proud fans. The moment was perfect, and Dawson celebrated accordingly. But his parents have learned from their son not to get too high, or too low. 

“We watch him in a different sense now, with more appreciation,” Joan said. “You know as parents you often ride an emotional rollercoaster with how their games go. Well, with him we certainly don’t do that because it is more of a gratitude that he gets to play, and we can enjoy it for what it is, which is just a game.”

Just a game, but one that means the world to Dawson. When he was sidelined after surgery, Dawson got antsy sitting in the bleachers while his team practiced. He’s played hockey all his life, and the recovery time was the longest he had ever spent off the ice. But the wait made coming back that much sweeter, and after his first game back in net, Dawson celebrated a little more than usual. 

To anyone who knows him, that might have come as a surprise. 

That’s because Dawson, now a senior, is poised and stoic, with a calmness projecting from within him. He’s everything a great goalie needs to be, and nothing a high schooler should have to be. But Dawson has more toughness packed into his 5-foot-10, 150-pound frame than most full-grown adults. And he has the scar to prove it.