Gwen Mysiak has a specific image of Luke Knox seared in her memory.
Mysiak, the executive director of P.U.N.T. Pediatric Cancer Collaborative, has worked with Dawson Knox since the Buffalo Bills tight end was a rookie. Knox’s curly-haired younger brother played the same position, first at Ole Miss as Dawson did, and then at Florida International.
At a fundraiser last July in Nashville, Dawson was surrounded by grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Luke came in from Florida, and because of that, he was a little late.
“I'll never forget the embrace and the look on Dawson's face when Luke walked onto the rooftop bar patio and (Dawson) just dropped everything,” Mysiak said. “It was like no one else existed in that moment, and the embrace of those two brothers, that was the first picture I had in my head when I learned of his passing.”
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Luke Knox died unexpectedly on Aug. 17, 2022, at age 22.
In the wake of that loss, Bills fans gave to P.U.N.T. Many of the donations were for $16.88, a nod to the jersey numbers of both brothers, resulting in about $230,000 from 9,050 donors.
As of midday Friday, nearly $110,000 has been donated in 5,500 donations to the P.U.N.T. Pediatric Cancer Collaborative, an organization that Dawson Knox has supported.
The contributions that flowed in Luke’s honor are serving three purposes: Luke’s Locker, the Last Responder Fund and the “Helping Hands” Endowment.
That plan was announced in November, after taking time to talk through the options and be intentional about where the money would go. Mysiak was instrumental in the process as the Knox family mourned.
“I always say public charities are bonds of trust,” Mysiak said. “I really wanted people to understand what we would be able to do now because we had $200,000 that we didn't have before.”
Now, a few months later, the plans have been coming to life. In late February, Luke’s Locker was unveiled at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, in the brothers’ hometown of Nashville. This weekend, P.U.N.T. is partnering with the Erie County Department of Mental Health to bring Grief Training and a Child Loss Symposium to Western New York.
“It's overwhelming,” Mysiak said, “but it's super exhilarating because you just see again the ripple effect of what we're doing here.”
Dawson’s Lockers have been in hospitals in Western New York for the last few years. Inside the metal locker door are financial lifelines for families in need. Gift cards for gas and groceries. Vouchers for hospital parking and cafeteria meals. All the other costs that can add up and up as a family moves their gravitational center to a hospital. Now, around 700 miles away, there’s a Luke’s Locker.
“To be able to bring that to my hometown, start getting involved with Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, especially it being named after my brother is something that's pretty amazing,” Knox said. “Just to honor his legacy, something that should live on a lot longer.”
The two locations were meaningful to Knox. While Mysiak and P.U.N.T. want to focus effort overall in Western New York, the influx of donations specifically for Luke gave clarity on a Tennessee extension. The Knox brothers were born at a different hospital, but one of their cousins went through treatment at Vanderbilt for a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer.
“It's just really cool, seeing that come together,” Knox said. “Where I grew up and also combined with Buffalo is pretty amazing.”
Knox went to Tennessee for the unveiling, where he was able to meet with about 15 hospital employees.
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In the days after Luke Knox’s death, more than 9,000 donations totaling $230,000 poured into P.U.N.T. Pediatric Cancer Collaborative. That money will be used for three new initiatives at P.U.N.T.
The kind of aid that Luke’s Locker provides meets patients and their families where they are. Hospitals can’t give certain kinds of aid directly – some things are against federal law. Donations through outside groups such as P.U.N.T. bridge those needs.
“Just very grateful that we can do something like that to honor Luke,” Knox said. “It's just obviously … it's extremely emotional. But definitely, I get a lot of thankful feelings when I see that on the locker knowing that's there's going to be a lot of good to come from it.”
A movement to normalize grief
Luke’s Locker provides solace in how tangible the help is. In Western New York, Luke’s legacy will have a profound impact that’s too far-reaching to quantify.
Through the Last Responder Fund, which was created as part of Luke’s legacy, and with other sponsors, P.U.N.T. is holding two events this weekend centered on responding to grief.
Friday's event on best grief-informed practices will educate professionals and practitioners who support families in the wake of a loss. Saturday's program is a symposium for parents who have lost a child, which will include facilitated breakout sessions. P.U.N.T. is partnering with the Erie County Department of Mental Health and bringing in trainers from the Dougy Center, a nonprofit that aids in grief training across the county.
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Events such as this help connect families to others who share the specific grief of losing a child. Through its Ultimate Compassion Program, P.U.N.T. established an annual Remembrance Weekend each April in Ellicottville. The weekend retreat supported 34 families, including seven of 11 new families that P.U.N.T. supported for the first time in the last year. Many families return annually.
The training and symposium this weekend build on that commitment to provide for grieving families.
“We vowed that we would be stepping out in this realm to continue to edify our own bereavement efforts for pediatric cancer families, but then to offer some of what we provide more broadly,” Mysiak said.
The impetus comes from a glaring need.
“We don't have a lot of organized bereavement support in Western New York,” Mysiak said. “Other communities have full-blown grief centers.”
A larger grief center can include anything from a game room to give teens a place to relax to a padded “hurricane room” for kids with punching bags. Experts emphasize grief can take many forms, but that society is still evolving in how people respond.
“We’re largely a death-denying culture,” Mysiak said. “People don't know what to say, so they don't say anything. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. There's really a movement to kind of normalize grief.”
The name of the fund comes from acknowledging the people who guide a family through last steps when they lose a child.
“They are doing impossibly hard jobs and having conversations that most people won't even think about,” Mysiak said. "I believe there's going to be a tremendous ripple effect from this, because we'll have 100 people that now will go back to their roles.”
With each lesson a professional takes back to support people who are grieving, and with each connection made in Sunday’s breakout sessions, there will be a nod to Luke Knox.
“Given the trauma of grief and loss experienced in our community in the last year, this training and symposium will be an invaluable resource for those looking to help others or themselves,” Erie County Mental Health Commissioner Mark O’Brien said in a statement.
“For those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, particularly a child, this symposium will be a source of knowledge, comfort and healing. We are proud to be part of this valuable initiative.”
'Some extra motivation'
Knox says he’s doing as well as possible these days, knowing he'll always carry some grief with him.
“Our family has been super strong,” he said. “And my parents are setting a great example for the family. It's just one of those things you got to take one thing, one day at a time. So, it always helps being back in Nashville with the family too.”
Knox’s family means more to him than anything else. After an emotionally grueling year, he feels every trial has brought him closer to his large family.
But he’s also made lasting connections in Buffalo, through his work with P.U.N.T.
Knox is donating $1,000 for each touchdown, and $100 for each catch.
For the last two years, he’s raised money for the organization through his Knox Sox. In the second year of the campaign, they sold more than 20,000 pairs of socks.
Knox’s most meaningful work comes from the direct connections. Take 13-year-old cancer patient Colt for example. Colt began going through treatments for cancer during Covid. After his own diagnosis, he went through the trauma of losing a number of his peers from his support group to different forms of the disease. Then, after he thought he was out of the woods, he relapsed.
Knox would send Colt videos while he was away from Buffalo to cheer him on, and Colt would send them right back from the hospital.
“Colt, it was so great to see your face in that video, man. I appreciate it,” Knox said, filming from his truck so he could respond about 15 minutes later. “I'm going in to work out right now. You just gave me some extra motivation. I'm gonna go get a good one in now, thanks to you. So, thanks for sending me that video, man.
“Super excited to get back to Buffalo, and we'll be here soon within about a month, so stay strong, man, keep fighting. I love you, dude. Go Bills.”
The connections like that are why fans flooded P.U.N.T. with donations in Luke’s honor.
Knox continued to check in with kids like Colt, even as his offseason took him around the country. He spent some time in Indianapolis, too. He joined the “Players Only Combine” broadcast on NFL+ during the 2023 scouting combine. Knox told The News that he didn’t rehearse too much of what he was going to say; his plan was mainly to wing it. He knew either way he would hear from his family. At the time, he was expecting pointers from his dad and teasing from his sister.
First though, his family was going to need to make sure they had the channel all ready to go.
“I'm sure they're trying to figure out how to sign up for all the subscriptions or whatever they make you buy just to watch it,” Knox said in March. “But yeah, they're probably gonna be watching.”
And Knox knows wherever his travels take him and whatever channel he’s on, he’ll always have someone watching. Knox feels Luke with him each step of the way.