READING, Ohio – It’s amazing what a simple game can do to lift a person’s spirit, especially when it feels like life has different plans.
Cancer stole football and baseball from Jake Swanner, but after beating bone cancer, the Reading High School senior took them back.
On Friday night, Swanner, a student coach on Reading’s football and baseball teams, will wear football pads for the first time in three years and start at wide receiver for one play on the Blue Devils’ first offensive play against Summit Country Day, a team with its own cancer survivor in Paul Wilson Jr.
“We’re doing a fundraiser for childhood pediatric cancer,” said Rob Page, who’s now in his second season as Reading’s head football coach. “We’re gonna have yellow socks on. He’ll go out and play the first play. He’s an honorary captain so he’ll do the coin toss.”
Page said they originally wanted to do this on Senior Night later in the season, but Swanner’s set for a partial knee replacement surgery at the end of the month.
Swanner’s fight with cancer started his freshman year at Reading.
“I played football freshman year with the cancer, I just didn’t know,” said Swanner. “The whole season it was pain the whole time. So, baseball season’s coming up and it’s still hurting. I told my dad and we went to Beacon (Orthopedics) and there was a big lump right below my (right) knee. They did an X-ray and they thought it was a blood infection, so they went to go clean it out and they found the tumor … did the biopsy and that’s when they told me that it was cancer.”
Osteosarcoma is most common in children and young adults and most tumors develop in the bones around the knee, according to the American Cancer Society.
“They (removed the tumor) first and then they gave me two rounds of chemotherapy,” Swanner said. “That process lasted for about a year.”
When they first told him it was cancer, Swanner said, he didn’t panic or freak out.
“I wasn’t worried at all because I knew I’d beat it … for me, I knew,” he said. “The fact that I couldn’t play sports — that killed me. That was probably the only time I cried during all this.”
Doctors told Swanner his leg would be too fragile to play sports.
“That was probably the hardest thing out of all of it,” said Swanner, who was soon propositioned to rejoin the football team, just in a different role.
“Last year when I came on,” said Page, “I met him and he was like, ‘I can’t play anymore but I still want to be a part of the team somehow.’ He would help film practice, he would film games, organize our managers and ball boys and hold scout cards and do all these things.
“This year, we wanted to expand his role, give him a little more responsibility during individual and be a mentor.”
Swanner now holds the title of student coach.
“It raised my energy a lot,” said Swanner. “After that, I felt down cause I couldn’t do anything — I can’t run; I can’t do contact anything — but when they said I could be a student coach I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll do that.’ It brought my spirits back up.”
Not only did it lift Swanner up, it lifted his teammates who’ve looked to Swanner for inspiration.
“I would definitely say Jake has been an inspiration to a lot of guys in terms of him beating cancer,” Page said. “He’s such a well-liked kid; everyone loves him. No one has a bad thing to say about Jake Swanner. He’s so positive, he’s so kind, he cares about others, he’s a good friend, he’s reliable … it would be very easy to say, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this (football team),’ but he wants to do anything he can to help us.”
Swanner said every time he gets out on the field, even the sideline, a smile emerges. Friday night, there will be smiles, cheers, and probably some tears as Swanner takes the field for what’s likely the last time.
“When my mom told me, ‘Hey you’re going in on Friday,’ I started to tear up because I was just so happy,” said Swanner.
This month marks the two-year anniversary since Swanner’s cancer treatments ended. He said not until the five-year mark will he be considered completely cancer free.
“I wouldn’t be here, where I am, without my mom, my family, and my teammates,” said Swanner, who would like to continue his coaching career after high school, along with another profession he’s recently become passionate about.
“I want to be a nurse because after all this, I only had like two male nurses and I thought they were just amazing,” Swanner said. “I’d like to go in and do that and help kids out who are going through what I went through.”