Football, friendship and life: Wisconsin village rallies around football standout with cancer

Kimberly captain Sam Klein was recently diagnosed with leukemia. As the Papermakers look to get back to the top, they're finding inspiration in their beloved teammate.
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Posted at 2:22 PM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 15:30:32-04

KIMBERLY, Wis. (NBC 26) — Getting to the top is hard. Staying there is even harder.

That's what Kimberly has found out over the past couple of seasons. After a ridiculous 70-game winning streak and five straight state titles from 2013-2017, the Papermakers have come up short the last three seasons.

"For the five years when we went 70-0, people where starting to expect perfection," senior offensive lineman Thomas Biolo said. "But it's high school football. You're not always going to get perfection."

"Going out there and performing at a high level each week... It's hard to do when everyone is like staring at you and expecting you to do good," senior quarterback Caden Pendleton said.

It's been four years since Kimberly's last state championship. They took home a silver ball in 2018. Suffered a state semifinal loss to Bay Port in 2019. And went 6-1 in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, culminating in a 71-47 loss to Fond du Lac.

"Those are two losses in two years," head coach Steve Jones said of the past two seasons. "There's a lot of programs that would love to have that.

"We're not happy about those two losses. We definitely hope we've learned from them."

This year the Papermakers are off to a 3-0 start, but they aren't thinking championship.

"Ironically we don't talk about it," Jones said. "We don't talk about championships. We talk about are we getting better, and that's the overall goal."

On top of that, this year's season is about more than just football. It's about friendship and it's about life, after senior center Sam Klein was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

"For me personally it's been really tough," Biolo said. "Me and (Klein) have been super close for a long time. So seeing him have to struggle is really hard but just as a football team and as a family, we've really been there for him."

"I try to text him a couple times a week to see how he's doing," Pendleton added. "He's always in high spirits, he's really energetic."

And though he's no longer snapping the ball, through it all Klein remains a key part of the team.

"We still named him captain this year," Jones said. "And that's a compliment to him because everybody looks at him as a leader.

"He's definitely a glue guy in our program," Jones added. "Even though he's a physical o-lineman he's kind of that big teddy bear that cares about everybody."

"Being able to have him next to me and walk out with us when he's about to go to the games is really special," said Biolo, who is also a captain. "Having him there it really shows everyone that fighting and pushing through stuff it really pays out in the end."

Kimberly plays Appleton North on Friday night. Klein plans to attend the game. You can watch the game on Sports Showdown. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. on WACY My 32.