Archived Story

Former Austin quarterback dies at 27

Published 11:08am Thursday, November 21, 2013

AUSTIN — If you knew Mark Cavanaugh or not, you can certainly learn a lot about him by the way he finished his life.

Cavanaugh, a 2004 Austin High School grad, died Nov. 12, but he didn’t do it without leaving a big impression on all of those around him. He was 27.

His brother, Mike Cavanaugh, who graduated from AHS in 2002 and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Michigan State University, considered his younger brother Mark to be his best friend. Mike was also blown away by how Mark handled his five year-battle with what began as a mysterious illness.

It eventually got to the point where doctors were giving Mark just hours to live, but he went on for another seven days, and family members and friends were all given some more time with him.

“Mark’s attitude was unbelievable,” Mike said. “He did it for us and he gave us seven more days. We talked, we listened to music and we played video games. Right before he passed, he said it was the best week of his life.”

Mark also left a lasting impression on the hospital staff at the University of Minnesota as he continued his physical therapy well after others would’ve given up. Mike said doctors would come and watch Mark in disbelief and one of the physical therapists said she hand’t seen anyone work like Mark in her 25 years on the job.

Mark’s attitude wasn’t a surprise to Mike, as he recalled a time when the two were growing up in Austin. Mike was starting to lift weights for the first time, but Mark wasn’t allowed to since he was younger. Instead of lifting, Mark learned about Herschel Walker’s workout routine, and he committed himself to doing 2,000 push-ups and 2,000 sit-ups every day.

By the time Mike got in the weight room with his older brother, he was doing 15 reps of 135 pounds and 10 reps of 185 pounds.

“Here I thought I was super strong and he comes in there lifting that much,” Mike said. “That was Mark in a nutshell.”

Mark went on to lead the Packers to the Section 1AAAA football title game his senior season and was named an all-state honorable mention quarterback. His favorite target and good friend was Nate Johnson, who went on to play football at St. Cloud State.

Johnson is now an assistant football coach at Gustavus University, and he said he still hasn’t seen a quarterback quite like Mark.

“He was one of the most dynamic leaders I’ve been around. I’ve never seen a quarterback command a huddle and make people follow him like Mark did,” Johnson said. “[Mark] was a fighter, and he certainly fought his ass off for five years. He had a capacity to love people like family and he had a way of treating people right.”

As Mark began to fight his illness five years ago, nobody knew exactly what it was except that it was a T-Cell driven auto immune disease. Mark eventually received a bone marrow transplant, but he ended up with a fungal infection in his lung.

Austin head boys basketball coach Kris Fadness, who coached Mark in football, said nobody really knew how bad off Mark was because his attitude was so strong. Fadness considered Mark the best football player to play in Austin in the last 17 years.

“It’s just a tragic situation,” Fadness said. “He could never really get a grip on how to fight [the illness], and it tore down his immune system. Mark fought with such dignity, and all who new Mark figured this is Mark and he’s going to get through this.”

Joe Kroc, who graduated from AHS with Mark, said the Cavanaugh household was his home away from home growing up, as he and Mark were great friends. Kroc remembered Mark for having a genuine caring attitude for all of those around him.

“Family was very important to Mark. He was very loyal and he would do anything for them,” Kroc said. “I think all of us can learn from Mark that life is going to give you challenges. You have to fight, and seeing him like that was an inspiration. He was the most determined kid I’ve come across. He gave his all.”

Mike said it still seems surreal that Mark is gone, as everyone expected that he would overcome his illness. Mike has memories of Mark as the kid who worked as hard as he could so he was able to play varsity football as a sophomore with his older brother.

Mike ended up throwing a key block on one of Mark’s first rushing touchdowns, and he still remembers turning to congratulate his younger brother.

“He had this big smile on his face and it’s something I’ll never forget,” Mike said.