Ella Mautz is a junior in high school, and like most athletes, her life is heavily impacted by the sport that she loves: lacrosse.
“Playing lacrosse…it’s just always been a big part of my life,” explained Ella. “And it’s a big part of my family’s life, we’ve just always been active.”
However, at a young age, Ella’s grandfather, Bill Borgwardt, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away in 2018. The diagnosis gave new meaning to her family’s passion for sports and pushed them to get involved in the pancreatic cancer community.
“We want to do our part to help find a cure,” Ella’s father, Austin, said.
So, when Ella came up with the idea to create a charity lacrosse team for an annual lacrosse tournament Austin was right there to support his daughter. Together, the two were able to raise money, and awareness, for the pancreatic cancer community.
The Mautz’s Face Off Against Pancreatic Cancer
Ella’s time with her grandfather, even though it was short, was full of wonderful memories. Ella remembers how kind and compassionate her grandfather was, and how he always tried to put family first.
“He was a great man,” Ella remembers. “He loved family… he always took a lot of time to be with us. He was a really happy guy.”
Sadly, Ella’s grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when Ella was just eleven years old. The family received his diagnosis during the holiday season in 2017. Ella remembers this time as being one of confusion.
“It was hard, especially because I was in fifth grade at the time,” Ella explains. “It was pretty confusing; I knew that he was sick before that, but nobody really knew why, and then it all happened really quickly.”
His battle only lasted about four months, escalating quickly as he underwent treatment. The Mautz family were not fully prepared for how fast his diagnosis would progress.
“Eventually, we knew what was coming,” Austin explains, “and it all went faster than we thought, or hoped, at the beginning.”
The family did not want Ella, or the other grandchildren, to remember the man they looked up to as sick or hurting, so they made the decision to keep the grandchildren away from the house during his final month.
“I saw him for three months after his diagnosis, and then he started to get pretty bad,” Ella recounts.
“The grandkids didn’t spend much time with him in those last few weeks,” Austin adds. “He wasn’t doing well, and he wasn’t looking like himself and we didn’t want them to remember him that way.”
On the other hand, Bill’s wife Judy, and his children spent time with Ella’s grandfather until the end of his life. Austin recalls that time as being one of sadness, but also of great happiness at being able to spend time with Ella’s grandfather before he passed.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” explained Austin. “It went very quickly from diagnosis to when he passed away, but it was also a really great experience to be able to spend that quality time with him.”
Throughout his diagnosis, Ella’s grandfather was able to maintain a positive attitude. Austin remembers being truly moved by his resilience and strength.
“He took it so well. He was very confident in his faith and he just knew it was happening for a reason,” Austin said. “It was pretty inspirational, I would say, the way that he handled it and how his friends and family rallied around him.”
In his final weeks, Austin observed how deeply loved Ella’s grandfather was by those around him. He is thankful that he got to share in that experience.
“Getting to see him with all his friends and family and siblings that came to the house and visited him and said goodbye,” said Austin, “it was a pretty amazing and humbling experience.”
Ella’s grandfather passed away on May 1, 2018. This holiday season will mark the sixth year since his diagnosis.
Ella and Austin Head to the Field
Ever since his passing, Ella’s family has taken a page from their grandfather’s book and done the best they can to help support other families going through a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Ella’s mother, Lisa (Bill’s daughter), along with her sisters and brother have run several races with Project Purple, including the recent 2023 Chicago Marathon. Ella, inspired by her family’s commitment to Project Purple, decided to use her own athletic ability to try to raise funds for the cause.
“My brother started playing the sport, and I used to play with him all the time, and that’s kind of why I started,” Ella explained when asked about her love of the sport. “Lacrosse kind of just stuck.”
Ella and some of her fellow lacrosse friends participate each October in a 6 vs. 6 tournament at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This year, she wanted to play for something more than just the love of the sport.
“This year, I decided to be Project Purple,” Ella explained when asked about the tournament. “We got purple uniforms and I took this team. A couple weeks before the tournament, I sent out an email to family and friends and some teammates that I was going to be doing this and talked about donating and all of that, and my story, why I’m involved and all that.”
“This is an event where teams show up and they can either bring their normal team uniforms or, it’s around Halloween, so some people do costumes and things like that,” Austin explained. “I think we are the only team I’ve ever seen in the several years we’ve done this event that’s playing for a charity. It was really cool, you know a few hundred people got to see these purple lacrosse jerseys at the event.”
Ella’s tournament fundraiser raised about $2,000 for Project Purple. However, what counted more to Ella and her family was the awareness she was able to bring to the cause.
“It’s just so important to me because of my grandfather,” Ella explained when asked about how important spreading awareness is to her. “Before my grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, honestly, I didn’t know anything about it.”
“A lot of people don’t even know that the pancreas is a thing until you know somebody who has pancreatic cancer who is close to them,” Austin added. “It’s one of those cancers that unless you have personally been impacted by it, it’s just not one of the ones that gets a lot of discussion…Every dollar that we can put towards finding a cure for it is important.”
Next year, the Mautz’s plan to continue their fundraising efforts.
“We got about a dozen or so people who responded to our email, and the girls on the team and their families donated,” explained Austin. “It was super encouraging, just with one email how much we were able to do, but I think in the future…we will set a bigger goal and be more successful with it for the next couple of years.”
At the end of the day, Ella is excited that she got to honor her grandfather by playing the sport she loves. Austin explained how her grandfather loved nothing more than seeing his grandkids happy and active.
“Grandpa Bill liked to watch his grandchildren play sports,” Austin remembers, “it was one of his favorite things.”
Overall, Ella is excited to continue to impact the pancreatic cancer community through their love of lacrosse.
Continuing the Fight at the Collegiate Level
Even though she is only a junior, Ella has started to look towards the future, hoping to incorporate lacrosse and fundraising into her college career. Thankfully, she has already found a school that can support both her goals! In September, Ella verbally committed to playing lacrosse after high school at Marquette University, where she can continue to use her sport to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer.
“Marquette has an annual pancreatic cancer fundraiser game,” explained Austin, “It’s a really important cause to the university because the head coach lost somebody that was important in her life when she was in college to pancreatic cancer. It’s a pretty cool tie in.”
In general, Ella hopes that her fundraising efforts will inspire other kids her age to get involved and help them learn about the pancreatic cancer community.
“I think a lot of kids my age never think about things like this, so if there’s another kid your age putting something out there and telling you about it, then it actually means something to them,” said Ella.
Thank you so much to Austin and Ella for your fundraising efforts; we can’t wait to see you again next year!