Plymouth's Josh Gatt refocuses on soccer career after wife's cancer ordeal

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Josh and Melissa Gatt

This week, Josh Gatt of Plymouth says he will leave for Austria to revive a professional soccer career that as he puts it was “derailed.”

That only begins to describe it.

After a six-year playing career in Europe, the former Detroit Catholic Central standout returned stateside last year to make a go in Major League Soccer. The winger, who was coming off a third ACL surgery, was immediately dealt from Minnesota United to Colorado Rapids, where he made 20 appearances and contributed two goals.

At season’s end, the Rapids didn’t pick up his option. The U.S. international (two senior call-ups, four U20 appearances) auditioned for the Chicago Fire, which didn’t pan out. In the interim, he’s trained and played one match with semi-professional Detroit City FC.

That’s soccer. That’s professional sports.

However, life dealt a far more wicked bend in the road.

His wife of two years, Melissa, was misdiagnosed with thymic carcinoma, a rare cancer with a low life expectancy. It was later revealed she actually had non-Hodgkin lymphoma B-Cell progressive, a treatable form of the disease.

After intensive chemotherapy treatment, Melissa’s prognosis is good; she’s in remission. She completed a fifth round of chemo at the University of Michigan Hospital this weekend and has one more session to go.

DCFC's Josh Gatt closes down on an AFC Ann Arbor ball carrier in his lone appearance for the semi-professional club in a match May 13.

The upbeat turn hasn’t made the careening ride during the past half year any less fraught for the young couple.

“We didn’t know anything at the time,” said Gatt, sitting in the Ironwood Grill in Plymouth where he and Melissa first met in December 2013. “We honestly believed at the time, ‘This is it.’ Obviously, knowing what we know now, it was absolutely ridiculous that they told us that based off a CT scan. It’s absolutely unfathomable they could figure that out without actually doing a biopsy.

“She was preparing herself to die, in a way. As horrible as it sounds, after hearing that she was. She had a mental thread going that she wasn’t going to live until her 26th birthday … because of what they told us back in Colorado.”

A misplaced death sentence was a far cry from what the couple was being told when Melissa was showing up at urgent care.

She made four trips to emergency clinics care during a 2½-month period where she was informed she merely was suffering from a viral infection.

“One of the urgent care doctors said at the time she would bet her paycheck that it was just a viral infection,” Gatt said. “Turned out she was wrong.”

Upon receiving the original diagnosis, the couple flew back to Michigan in March where Melissa was treated at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital before switching her care to the University of Michigan Health System.

Gatt, whose life has revolved around soccer since childhood, was thrust into the role as Melissa’s caregiver. The couple has been staying with Melissa’s parents, Kimberly and Matthew Needham, in Canton.

He makes dinner, runs errands and does anything else to motivate her “to get back to her normal path life.

“What we are going through right now is not our normal life,” he said.

He immediately set up a GoFundMe page, which raised $78,000 to offset medical bills. The most adroit move, though, came by way of his mother-in-law.

When Colorado didn’t renew Gatt’s option, MLS terminated the couple’s health insurance. Kimberly Needham frantically signed up her daughter on the mother’s health plan the morning of a doctor’s appointment, which came the day of the initial cancer diagnosis.

“It turned out to be lifesaving,” said Gatt, noting that five rounds of chemotherapy alone total $200,000. Surgery to remove a port on her chest to dispense chemo, which eradicated the 5½-inch tumor, will run $40,000.

“To be honest, without insurance there’s a good chance that we would not have been able to recover financially. We would have been in debt the rest of our lives, including the fact of Melissa’s student loan payments have piled up that the government will never let us get out of, never give us a break on, regardless of what we are going through.

“Plus the medical industry, if we didn’t have insurance, half a million dollars to save my wife’s life. Most people don’t have half a million dollars.

“Without the stars aligning, we would have probably ended up homeless and broke, and in a lot of unrecoverable debt, bankruptcy. Our credit would have been destroyed.”

In the wisdom of hindsight, Gatt can play what-ifs.

Had he remained in Norway where he played for Molde in the Eliteserien from 2011-16, tallying nine goals in 60 appearances, health care is free.

He also notes his third knee surgery, which included meniscus sutures and cartilage repair as well as removing a tendon from his right hamstring to repair his left ACL, cost $16,000 in Germany. He was hospitalized four days.

His first knee surgery in Vail, Colo., ran $70,000, which did not include rehabilitation.

The cost disparities don’t mean he believes socialized medicine is the prescription in the U.S.

“You’re talking about a country that is a fraction of the size of America,” he said.

Gatt plans to return to Austria, where his professional soccer odyssey started in 2010 after he was plucked from an academy showcase to play for Rheindorf Altach, bypassing an offer to play collegiately at Indiana. The Michigan Wolves product recorded four goals in 20 appearances with the Austrian Bundesliga side.

He will join Altach, which starts preseason training June 18.

Sean Cunningham, a friend from their days with Michigan Wolves, says the abrupt move makes sense, considering what Josh and Melissa have endured.

"I think that it's an unfamiliar time," said Cunningham, 25, who played with Gatt in Norway with Molde. "No one prepares for their wife, especially their young wife, to be diagnosed with cancer, especially in a transition period between clubs.

"So, I think it makes sense to go back to something that is familiar. I think it will really help them to really handle some things."

Cunningham's soccer career mirrored Gatt's until injuries took their toll.

Like Gatt, Cunningham pursued a pro path in Europe while turning down a chance to play college soccer — at the University of Michigan in his case. He signed with Molde, but was loaned to Straebek where he made 18 appearances in 2012.

The Troy native also earned a U.S. national call-up with the U20 team in 2011.

Cunningham, who auditioned for MLS Seattle Sounders, decided to pursue medical school. He's attending Oakland University and will start submitted applications next year, he said.

"It's been a journey," Cunningham said. "It's not an easy one for any athlete to change careers, especially from something they have spent the majority of their early life doing. It's tough and it's not something to be overlooked by a lot of people."

Gatt doesn't sound like he's contemplating a career change, talking about his fitness level ahead of his latest Europe adventure.

His last competitive match came May 13 in DCFC’s 1-0 loss at AFC Ann Arbor when he played 53 minutes before being subbed by Rafa Mentzingen. He's grateful to the Le Rouge community.

“That guy’s been nothing but supportive,” Gatt said of DCFC coach Ben Pirmann. “If there was a gold medal, I would give him one because he’s been great throughout this process. The whole club has been great for letting me come out and just letting me be part of it.”

Melissa will join him as well as their two dogs — a miniature pinscher, Rex; and Chihuahua, Nunio — once she is able to travel. She has a master’s degree in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Southampton in England.

She earned her undergraduate degree at Michigan. Her career prospects are better in Germany, Gatt said.

“This is a chance to get back to our normal life once we’re past this,” he said. “This whole thing has seen our lives being derailed. You don’t want it to happen, but it does. You have to adapt.”

Longtime friend Cunningham believes the couple weathered the worst due to their love for each other, as well as the enduring support of family and friends. 

"I think they both have a lot of belief in themselves as well in that they are going to get through adversity, whatever it is," Cunningham said.