The cancer had come back, and this time there would be no beating it for Luke Laufenberg. He would have only hours to live now, his father Babe by his side during those heartbreaking final days at Children’s Medical Center Dallas — because Burkitt lymphoma doesn’t care if you are only 21 years old and doesn’t care if you had been so close to realizing your college football dream.
Jason Garrett was the head coach of the Cowboys and has known Babe Laufenberg for almost three decades, the two of them backup quarterbacks for Jerry Jones only a year apart. Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, Calif., had broken, and at the end of another exhausting day as coach of America’s Team, here was Garrett, walking into the hospital room to comfort his friend and his friend’s son, around 11 o’clock at night. For the third straight night.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Babe Laufenberg asked Garrett. “And he stayed for two hours, and he had to get up 5 in the morning the next morning and do his job.”
Garrett and his wife Brill had been a support system when Luke Laufenberg was first diagnosed with cancer in 2017. He had beaten it, overcome the loss of more than 50 pounds, been declared cancer-free in May 2018, and had gone on eight months later to chase his dream again as a tight end at UTEP … until the devastating news on July 12, 2019, that the disease was terminal. Only a few insiders knew. Because Luke looked too healthy to be so sick.
“He’s known Luke literally since the day he was born,” Babe Laufenberg said.
Luke passed at 2:30 on the morning of Aug. 22, 2019. Babe texted Garrett the news: “We lost him.”
Garrett called Laufenberg prior to his press conference later that morning. “Would you mind if I mentioned something?” Garrett asked.
“I said, ‘No, go ahead if you want,’ ” Laufenberg said.
The press conference would consist of one question, from a Cowboys beat writer, about Luke Laufenberg. Babe Laufenberg didn’t watch it until sometime that night. He was told about how Garrett was choked with such genuine emotion during his tribute.
“Luke was an amazing young man,” Garrett said. “You guys have heard me talk about ‘fight’ a lot. I don’t know if I’ve seen a better example of that in my life. With what he’s gone through over the last couple of years. The spirit he had, every day, to battle through it, To always be thoughtful about the people in his life. ‘How’s my mom doing, how’s my dad doing? How’s my brother doing?’ Amazing.
“You’d walk into the room, and he’d just light up, whatever was going on. He just had this … this way, this strength, unlike I’ve ever seen, unlike I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s such a tragedy, it’s so hard to understand, but I know I will and anybody who ever knew him, will be forever inspired by the life that he lived.”
Babe Laufenberg could not fathom giving the eulogy days later. “I just didn’t think I could get through it,” he said.
It was Garrett who implored him to give it.
“You’ve gotta do it. You gotta be the one,” Garrett told him over the phone.
Babe Laufenberg’s voice cracked as he mentioned that the one-year anniversary of Luke’s passing draws near. He was able to chuckle at the recollection of what he thought to himself after hearing those words from Garrett, maybe to keep from crying:
“Wait a minute: The guy that couldn’t make it through two minutes of the press conference on a kid that wasn’t even his own, telling me, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ ”
Babe Laufenberg was determined to summon the very courage he and everyone had seen from his son, who hid the excruciating pain as much as he could and suffered in silence.
“So I thought, ‘OK, if Luke went through what he did, and handled it the way he did, I can get up there and fight my way through it there,’ ” Babe said.
He recruited Garrett to be his backup, just in case.
“He said, ‘Bambino, you kidding me?’ ” Laufenberg recalled. “ ‘I’ve been a backup all my life, I’m ready to go.’ ” “ ‘You go down, I’m ready to go!’ ”
Laufenberg became the lead sports anchor and sports director for KTVT television in Dallas in 1997 and is a widely respected color analyst on the Cowboys’ radio network. So he has witnessed the entirety of the Jason Garrett Era (2011-19) on the Cowboys sidelines.
“I think it’s a perfect situation for Daniel Jones to be in with Jason coming there,” Laufenberg said. “And I think the other thing is he’s gonna know what to do with Saquon [Barkley].”
Laufenberg is certain Garrett will be an invaluable sounding board for coach Joe Judge.
“There’s nobody more loyal than Jason,” Laufenberg said.
Laufenberg mentions how Garrett was instrumental in the development of Tony Romo and Dak Prescott.
“I would say they’re getting the right man for the job,” Laufenberg said. “As a Giants fan, I don’t think you’re saying, ‘God, I hope you can develop our young quarterback.’ He’s done it twice.”
Garrett never won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys. He is a champion to Babe Laufenberg just the same. When the conversation centers around football, when he is able to take a break from missing Luke, Laufenberg can chuckle after he says:
“I would have to recuse myself in a criminal trial on Jason Garrett.”
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