When Greg Knoll died Nov. 11, he died a Minneapolis police officer, not a sick cancer patient, his wife said.
He attacked his illness for two years, surviving an initial radical surgery involving the removal of his stomach and lymph nodes, as well as parts of his spleen and pancreas. After her husband's death, Melissa Knoll read a doctor's note that said he hadn't believed Greg would make it through the surgery.
Instead, the 37-year-old father of two recovered, returned to work for four months and was even close to getting clearance to return to the SWAT team. But then the stomach cancer came back, and the man who weighed 190 pounds as an officer shrank to 90 pounds. Knoll insisted on one last exploratory surgery two days before he died.
"Knowing what a fighter he was, I was happy he never had to give up," said his wife.
The couple met at Syracuse University, where Greg Knoll majored in economics. She persuaded him to move back to her home state of Minnesota. His boredom with desk jobs pushed him into a law enforcement career.
Knoll was hired by the Minneapolis Police Department in 1997 and was later assigned to the Third Precinct's community response team, which goes after street-level drug, gang and prostitution crimes. That's where he met Sgt. Matt Wente. The fellow officers would spend many long hours together.
"I knew he wanted to be on the SWAT team because he liked anything that went fast and went bang," Wente said.
Sgt. Mark Sletta, one of his SWAT supervisors, described Knoll as a great guy and hard worker. SWAT team members have to be in particularly good shape because of their heavy protective gear and are required to take a tough physical fitness test twice a year, he said.
Melissa Knoll said her husband loved being a street officer and never sought a promotion because his job offered him more training opportunities and a chance to work with recruits.
The first sign of Knoll's cancer came around Thanksgiving 2006 when he had troubling swallowing food and couldn't eat. Three weeks later, doctors discovered he had Stage IV cancer. One set of doctors said he wasn't a candidate for surgery, Melissa Knoll said.
Not willing to accept that prognosis, the Knolls went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Their doctors recommended the radical surgery of removing his stomach and other organs. The surgery lasted 13 hours.
Knoll made it back to work, went skiing and snowmobiling and took his daughters, ages 5 and 10, to Disneyland before the cancer returned. Throughout his illness, dozens of Minneapolis police officers drove Knoll for treatments and donated vacation time to help pay the family's mortgage and health bills.
"Our lives wouldn't have been the same if these officers weren't so gracious," said Melissa Knoll.
He loved target shooting, collected guns and watching NASCAR. He also rebuilt cars, including a 1956 Ford Fairlane he still owned that he had worked on with his father when he was a teenager.
Melissa Knoll said her husband's personality was tough on the outside. But on the inside he "was the daddy of two girls with a heart of gold." His daughters, Neva and Morgan, saw him twice the last time he was in the hospital.
"I'm sure they will remember him as a hero," Melissa Knoll said.
Services were held Nov. 14.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465