The Call Up

Julian Gressel, DC United work to help Kick Childhood Cancer

D.C. United midfielder Julian Gressel has always made a point of using his platform to make a difference off the field, specifically around the league's Kick Childhood Cancer campaign.

And they're not just words. The 27-year-old has become known for doing his best to make a positive impact in his community dating back to his days with Atlanta United, where he first connected with Owen Klemme, who was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma when he was just three years old in February 2018.

Gressel shared the backstory behind his subsequent friendship with Owen on the latest episode of The Call Up, starting with the pair's first interaction at an Atlanta United training session and continuing through regular hang-outs and even Gressel and his wife Casey accompanying the family trick-or-treating on Halloween. They stayed connected through Gressel's 2020 move to D.C. United, keeping in touch with the family via FaceTime during the COVID-19 pandemic. Owen passed away on July 22, 2021.

"I still have a picture with him from that first hospital visit when we both built a Lego dinosaur together," Gressel recalled to co-hosts Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins. "And [I] just stayed in touch throughout and they invited us out for Halloween to go trick-or-treating with them. They even provided costumes for us, so they had a whole family costume theme of aliens, and they got me and Casey and even our dog something that their dad made from scratch. Me and Casey, we were the sun and the earth that the aliens invaded."

"Owen was such a bright young kid, a lot of fight in him," he continued. "He was so bright, he was so excited about life and about spending with his brother and with his sister, going to kindergarten. The stories he told me, it was such a blessing, such a wonderful time to have with him to get those stories. He was so happy about the simple things, and that's what I like to hear, what keeps me grounded. It was so special to me. I think about him almost every day."

Gressel said that Owen left an imprint on him that he still carries today and likely will for life, adding that the friendship between the families gives him perspective when he might not be having the best day on or off the field.

"It's something that didn't just really start with him, I always wanted to be open in the community and use the platform I've been given by being a professional athlete to give back. And I know that there's people out there that don't have it as good as I do, people like Owen or millions of other people," Gressel said. "He was just an easy way to stay connected and have a natural relationship with a boy that just wants to have fun. It was so simple and so easy to spend time with him, where I feel like I'm an easy guy to connect with kids. I love family and all that stuff and they were so open to welcoming us into their family, and then having us be a part of their family traditions on Halloween and all that stuff, so it was just super easy for me to do the same.

"And to hear him say Mr. Julian always and asking me questions and talking about little things like kindergarten, those little things showed me all the things," he reflected. "If I had a bad training session or if we lose or I'm tired one day, I'm like, 'You know what? No. You're not tired today.' Because this little boy, he doesn't deserve what he's got and he has to fight every single day for something that he didn't want. You can fight through being a little bit tired to go to training to play some soccer. Those are the things that Owen reminded me of a lot and he reminds me of that stuff today."

Check out Gressel's full interview on The Call Up here, and be sure to keep using the #KickChildhoodCancer hashtag on social media.