For one youngster, life changed forever
STEWARDSON, Ill. -- As a teenager, Gruen Von Behrens was a handsome lad who hit .400 for the local Comets and wanted to play for the Chicago Cubs. Ryne Sandberg was his hero. "The only things I cared about were baseball, food, and women, in that order," he said. At the high school field he still can point out the houses in the neighborhood beyond the center-field fence that he hit with home runs.
But hitting homers was not his biggest habit. Spit tobacco was, and it almost cost him his life.
Von Behrens was on an overnight camping trip when a friend offered him some spit tobacco. It was stolen from his friend's father's dresser drawer. "I thought, `Why not?' " he said. "I was 13. I had not a care in the world. So I took a dip.
"At first it made me kind of sick and real dizzy. Next thing I knew I was addicted. I had to have it in my lip when I was playing baseball. I liked it. I liked the way it made me feel. I liked the way it tasted.
"It was a game at first to see who could take the biggest dip and hold it in their mouth the longest and get the most juice out of it. To see who it would make get sick and then make fun of that person. And then entice them to chew more. That game nearly cost me my life at the age of 17."
"The risks of spit tobacco didn't worry me. I wasn't going to get cancer, that just happened to old people," said Von Behrens, now 27.
The cancer in his mouth spread and ate half his face. Doctors told him there was an 80 percent chance he was going to die. Somehow he survived. Doctors have patched his face with skin and muscle from his lower leg and back. He's had 35 surgeries and more are scheduled. By his own admission he says he looks "scary."
Now, when Von Behrens travels the country working as a national spokesman for Oral Health America's National Spit Tobacco Education Program, people listen carefully. They have to. When MTV interviewed him, they ran subtitles along with his voice.
"I know I am hard to understand," he says in starting his speeches. "I am not an actor. This is not a mask I wear. I can't take this off when I get back to the hotel tonight. I know deep in my heart that if someone like me would have come to me when I was 13 looking like I do and told me that tobacco would do this to me I would have never started using out of sheer fright."
Von Behrens said that at his peak he was chewing more than half a can a day. "I had to have it in my lip when I played baseball. It helped relax me," he said. But when he turned 16, things were not so sweet. He noticed a white spot on the side of his tongue but dismissed it as a canker sore or fever blister.
"Cancer couldn't happen to me -- I was careless, carefree, and stupid," he said. Nine months later, that spot was diagnosed as oral cancer that nearly had eaten through his tongue.
"There were many nights I would go into the bathroom, pull my tongue out, and ask, `God, why are you doing this to me? Why me, God? I am scared to death.' "
He couldn't go to his father. "I never met the man. He ran off when I was a baby," Von Behrens said.
He didn't tell his mom, a nurse. "My mom would say, `Gruen, what is wrong with you?' " he said. "Why do you slur your speech? Why does the food fall out of your mouth? Why do you drool when you talk?"
He told her it was his wisdom teeth coming in.
"People say all the time, `Gruen, you idiot, why didn't you tell your mom what was wrong with you?' "
"I wasn't man enough to do that," he said. "I was petrified."
His mother told him she was taking him to the mall for a shopping trip and brought him to a dentist instead.
"After one glimpse at my tongue, he knew I had cancer," said Von Behrens. "Until that day, I had never seen my mom cry like that. It ripped her heart out. She knew that I had a chance to die within five years. She knew I would never play baseball again. Yeah, I had been diagnosed with cancer, but what does that mean to a 17-year-old kid? They either do one surgery and they get it or it kills you. I had no idea of the battle I was about to undergo."
The first operation lasted 13 hours. Doctors removed half his tongue and pulled his skin from ear to ear down to the neck to see if the cancer had spread. Then they said he needed radiation.
"I said, `Doc, I am a 17-year-old kid, what is that? It won't be bad will it?' He said, `It will be hell.' "
The doctor told him if he didn't undergo the radiation treatment, he couldn't guarantee he would see his 18th birthday.
"Wow, my mentality at 17 is, `Where is the ballgame tonight?' Or `Why is my girlfriend running around with that other guy?' Not about life and death," Von Behrens said.
The pain of the radiation broke his addiction. "It burned the inside of my mouth so bad it became all white and blistered," he said. "So blistered that it hurt me to drink water. It was a year after radiation until I could drink a soda or put ketchup on my french fries. The acids set me on fire. There were times with radiation where if I died I wouldn't have been upset, it hurt that bad.
"After radiation I thought my cancer was over. I had another 31 surgeries to go. Before, there were colleges interested in me. But at 17, my baseball days were over."
His speeches are making a difference. "Ballplayers will go back to the locker room and give me their chew cans and say they want to stop," he said. He tells the students, "When it comes time to put tobacco in your mouth or light up a cigarette, remember this face and this mouth."
He hopes someday to talk to major leaguers. "I would love to talk to the big leaguers who say they don't want to talk about it," he said. "They're addicts. Take their can away and see how mad they get.
"I'd say, `Why don't you be a role model for your family? How can a little can this size have more strength than you?' It's an addiction, but most of it is right up here," he said, pointing to his head. "Tobacco is the only product, used as directed, that will kill you."
When not getting standing ovations at schools across America, Von Behrens is in the woods, hunting with a bow and arrow or fishing in his favorite lake. Last week he won a bass tournament. "The fish and the animals don't care what I look like," he said.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.