Lukas was a football player himself. He played with his brothers in the front yard of their home in Wilmington, Delaware, before joining a league at age 6. The ferocity of his spirit and style of play earned Lukas a nickname -- the Dutch Destroyer.
He also lived by the mantra: "Wake up, kick ass, repeat." It served him well as the second youngest of five boys in a football-crazed household, and later as he geared up for what doctors described as the fight of his life.
“He was born just like a brick house,” said Rebecca Burmeff, Lukas’ mother. “Not an ounce of fat on him. I don't even know where these muscles came from on this kid. But, he would get out there [with his older brothers and play].
“You would think that he was a 200-pound, 18-year-old out there. He had no fear whatsoever. And he just wanted more of them -- more of it.”
As much as Lukas loved playing football, he also loved watching the Eagles. When doctors ordered a year of chemotherapy and radiation to treat Lukas’ cancer, his family decorated his hospital room in green and white and hung Wentz’s Eagles and North Dakota State jerseys on the walls.
A radiation technician who worked on Lukas’ case reached out to the Eagles to tell them his story. Not long after, a bunch of Eagles swag was delivered to his hospital room, along with a video message from Wentz.
“When he saw what it was [Wentz], and when he saw that it was for him -- he just got this smile, just the most beautiful smile on his face, just ear to ear,” Rebecca said. “Smiled the whole way through it. And then at the end, I think it hit him, this is Carson Wentz -- that took the time out of his day -- to send this message to me. And he just -- he just started to cry. He just started to cry.”
Wentz's kindness brings smile to young fan
Carson Wentz's Make-A-Wish video brings joy to 9-year-old fan Lukas, who is fighting cancer.
It was just the beginning of Lukas’ relationship with his hero. The connection can still be seen every Sunday on Wentz’s wrist.
“So he gave me -- he gave me a bracelet that said ‘Dutch Destroyer’ on it. I still wear it,” Wentz said of the gray and green rubber bracelet that bears Lukas’ nickname. “I wear it in games. I never take it off. And I really never wear bracelets like this, but this one has definitely given me extra motivation -- reminds me of that bigger-picture purpose.”
Football and family
For Lukas, family is football and football is family. There’s no separating the two. The scene in his house on Sundays during Eagles games is something out of “Silver Linings Playbook.”
“I can imagine, right now, my dad screaming. I'm always like, ‘Can you not?’” said 11-year-old Travis Kusters, Lukas’ older brother and constant companion. “It hurts my ears. It's not that it's annoying, it hurts my ears.”
Two of Lukas’ other older brothers, Jonathan and Anthony, play football in college and high school, respectively. Rebecca is a “football mom,” a staple on the sideline who videotapes games, brings snacks for the whole team and cheers at the top of her lungs.
Lukas, described affectionately as a “little s---kicker,” craved contact and was desperate to play football from the start. At age 4, he began to plead with Rebecca to let him suit up.
“And I'm, like, ‘Buddy, you know, you can't play until you're 6,’” Rebecca said. “I had to hold him off. And the second he hit that age, we signed him up.”
Lukas got plenty of training in the front yard, playing with his older brothers and their friends, who were almost twice his age.
“He would put on his football pads, his helmet. He'd get down in his 3-point stance and had one of our high school starting linemen -- I'm talking, he's like 6-2, 300 pounds -- go up against him,” Jonathan said.
When Lukas started playing against kids his own age, it was a mismatch.
Wilmington Titans coach Ray Jones was on the practice field on the first day of signups when one of the assistants grabbed his attention: “Hey, coach, you gotta check one out. I got one for you.”
“OK, is he big? Is he fast? What’s the deal? [I turned around] and Lukas was one of the biggest 8-year-olds I’ve ever seen,” Jones said with a laugh. “I mean, a gentle giant. Comes up, shake his hand. ‘Hi, my name is Lukas Kusters.’ He fit right in. All he wanted to do is play.
“A lot of kids were scared to hit against him, scared to tackle against him because of his size, but once they realized he was a nice guy, they were like, ‘All right, Lukas won’t kill me then, so lemme go ahead in the tackling drill with Lukas.'”
A neighbor made a highlight tape in which he dubbed Lukas “The Dutch Destroyer.”
“Because we're [part] Dutch and he destroyed people,” Jonathan explained of his brother’s moniker. “He played [football] better than any kid I've ever seen play it before. I mean, he looked like he was gonna be the best out of all of us. ... He was gonna play in high school. Most likely gonna play in college. You could just see it in him.”
Lukas had always been tough. So when he started getting sick -- he’d run to the bathroom, throw up and return as if nothing happened -- his parents thought he had a bug. When the symptoms failed to subside, Lukas visited the doctor. They discovered a mass the size of a grapefruit in his stomach. Tests revealed it was cancerous.
“I thought, ‘Well, that's no big deal,’” Travis said. “‘He can fight it.’"
Rebecca agreed: “I thought it would be no issue. I thought that my Lukas is a warrior and he'll have no problem. He's got this, is what I thought. We've got it together.”
Lukas got through surgery to remove the tumor (which doctors said had grown to the size of a regulation football), progressed in physical therapy to a point where he no longer needed a wheelchair or a walker, and made it to the end of treatment. All the signs pointed to remission.
“We had a party in his room,” Rebecca said.
“We celebrated. He came home,” Jonathan said. “We had family over. Everything was great, honestly. We thought that the last however many months of our life was finally coming to an end. We didn't have to worry about it anymore.
“And then a few weeks later, it came back.”
Lukas’ brother, Anthony, remembers his mom taking the call from the doctor. “I saw how she was reacting and I knew that it was not good,” he said. “She was breaking down.”
“The most difficult part was having to ... tell Lukas and tell the rest of the boys, what I had just learned,” Rebecca said. “But you know what Lukas did when I told him? He was immediately worried about everybody else. Everybody else. His brother, Travis, was there, and was very upset. And Lukas got up and went over to him, and was comforting him, telling him everything's gonna be OK. It's gonna be OK. He said, ‘I'm not gonna let this hold me back anymore.’ Those were his words. So that was devastating for our family.”
Wish to thank Wentz
Doctors told the Kusters that Lukas did not have long to live. Their social worker recommended focusing on Lukas’ wish. The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranges experiences, called wishes, for children with life-threatening medical conditions.
“I said, ‘Look, buddy, let’s think of something good and positive and happy right now,’” Rebecca said. “Let’s think about your wish and what you could do. And he said to me, ‘Mom, I just want to thank Carson.’ That was his wish. His wish was just to thank Carson for the video he sent him.”
Wentz and the Eagles planned something a little bigger. A limo picked up Lukas and his family last May and brought them to the practice facility. They were greeted by coach Doug Pederson before taking a tour. When they got to the locker room, Wentz emerged.
“The second he walked out, he got right down on Lukas' level. Lukas was in a wheelchair,” Rebecca said, “and, you know, welcomed him there, and just made Lukas feel like there was no one else in that building the entire time.”
The first thing Lukas did was present Wentz with his bracelet. The rubber band was a small token of the appreciation Lukas felt for Wentz. Then, Wentz and linebacker Jordan Hicks -- Lukas’ favorite defensive player -- took him into the locker room, interrupting player interviews to get autographs.
Afterward, Wentz took Lukas to the team cafeteria and made him a smoothie. Lukas hadn’t been feeling well and didn’t have much of an appetite, so he had trouble drinking it all. They took the leftovers home.
“That thing sat in the fridge at home for at least a week,” Jonathan said. “Oh my goodness. They're like, ‘We're not throwing that thing away. Carson made it.’"
When their time together came to a close, Lukas rose from his wheelchair to give Wentz and Hicks a long hug. As requested, they each rubbed his bald head.
“He said it was for good luck,” Wentz said. “And I just told him that I'm praying for him, and I just knew it was something that I would never forget. It was a day that started as I thought would be just a simple hang out with this kid, and it went way deeper than that.
“You could just feel all of his emotions; just in that hug. ... I could tell it was tough on them. It was tough on me to know that. I always wish I could do more.”
‘Do you think there are TVs in heaven?’
Lukas died on June 12, four days after his 10th birthday and 13 days after his Make-A-Wish day with Wentz and the Eagles.
The family decided to bury Lukas in a Wentz No. 11 jersey. The quarterback broke down in an interview with ESPN when he recalled the moment he heard.
“When his family told me that at training camp,” Wentz said after composing himself, “I was -- just got done with a hot, long, sweaty practice, and I was trying not to tear up hearing that from his family. To think that -- that he's buried wearing my jersey ...
“It's so much deeper than football is what it comes down to. It's so much more than just a game. Impactful. Meaningful. Powerful. And just another reminder for me that it is more than a game; that it is an opportunity to do good, whatever that is, whatever that looks like, and to just be authentic and genuine with people.”
Wentz sent flowers to the funeral and penned a hand-written letter to the family, which they framed and put up in their home. Wentz and the Eagles, Rebecca said, have “kept them close” in the weeks and months since.
Travis described cancer as “something that doesn't understand who we are, and they shouldn't mess with us. We try and try and sometimes we do beat it. But sometimes we don't.”
In his view, Lukas beat cancer twice: Once when he fought it into remission. Then again when he died.
“Well, he's not suffering anymore, so that's kind of how he won the fight,” Travis said.
Football begins again
The dawn of the 2017 season brought mixed emotions to the Kusters.
“It was the first time watching without my baby, which was heartbreaking,” Rebecca said. “But at the same time, it's the beginning of the season. We're so excited to see what the season holds, see what Carson can do and what the team can do.”
There were nerves as the family watched the Eagles take the field for the opener at the Washington Redskins. Then, as Wentz emerged from the tunnel, they saw it.
“What we see is Lukas' bracelet, right on his wrist,” Rebecca said. “It was humbling. And just a proud moment for us -- blown away that he continued to hold onto that and carry that with him.”
Rebecca’s husband, Rich Burmeff, remembers clearly the question that followed.
“Do you think there are TVs in heaven?” Rebecca asked.
A beat later, Wentz dropped back, spun out of the pocket, swiped one defender away, broke a tackle and ripped a ball deep down the left side for receiver Nelson Agholor, who ran in for a 58-yard touchdown. One defender tried to bring Wentz down by his wrist, but ended up on the turf instead.
“I said, ‘That’s Lukas! That’s our little s---kicker right there. He bounced off the bracelet, babe!’” Rich said. “That was a moment for us.”
Said Rebecca: “It took another game or so for me to put it together. I said, ‘You know, my baby may not get to live his dream of being in the NFL, but he's awful close right now. He's there. He's there with Carson.
“It is not just a rubber bracelet. That's a little boy's dream, right there.”