HANOVER – This was a senior night that carried more meaning than most.
As Jared Fracker took the floor in Dick Torbert Gymnasium on Tuesday for the last time with his parents, Brian and Brenda, many of the Licking Valley faithful knew his story. Perhaps many didn’t.
The affable 6-foot-4 forward plays with a brace on his knee, medication in his system and passion in his heart. The main thing is, he plays.
That seemed the furthest thing from reality, both when he was a toddler stricken with a rare ailment, and just last fall, when he was hooked up to machines in Children’s Hospital fighting for his life with double pneumonia. But this has been someone who won’t take no for answer.
“He’s always been a happy kid,” Brenda Fracker said. “Even with all those IVs sticking out of him, he was smiling and laughing. He amazes me. He always has a positive attitude. I don’t know where he gets it from. It must be from his dad.”
The journey began when Fracker was diagnosed at 3 months old with primary pulmonary hypertension, a narrowing of the blood vessels in the lungs that causes high blood pressure and eventually, heart failure. He was taken to a specialist in New York, and was connected to a machine until kindergarten.
“They put a port in his chest, and medicine was pumped in every half hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Brenda said.
He was able to attend kindergarten, but only by wearing a backpack, designed by his mother, containing his medication. It still had to be pumped into his chest. That was where his friends came in, and still do now.
“Drew Morrison kept an eye on him,” Brenda said. “He was his protector.”
At 6, Fracker got to the point where he only had to take his medication orally. Thanks to dad Brian, who played at Newark and Capital University, he developed an early love for basketball. “We would go to open gyms on Sunday mornings at Newark High School, and I practiced my shot,” Jared said.
Valley varsity coach Todd Torbert noticed he was a rising talent coming up through.
“Through travel ball and middle school, he was kind of an elite player in that class,” he said. “He’s always had the highest basketball IQ in that group. I think he gets it from his dad.”
Fracker had always been a guard, but then hit a junior high growth spurt. He was poised to become a star for the Panthers, with his ability to post up, pass, handle and shoot. Then, another challenge smacked him in the face: knee problems.
He tore his ACL in a scrimmage before his sophomore season, then tore another one the following summer. He kept working his way back, but in a scrimmage right before the tournament last season, came a third knee injury. Yet there he was, back on the court for his senior year.
“After my second ACL surgery, the surgeon said, ‘Are you going to play basketball again?'” Fracker said. “I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Are you stupid?'”
Torbert said most recoveries from ACL injuries take six months, but Jared was able to do his in five months. “He’s just worked so hard to get back where he is,” he said. “If he didn’t have basketball to look forward to, he would not have been motivated to do the rehab.
“I would never underestimate him, in any way.”
Last September, Fracker was euphoric. “It was the best report I’ve gotten (on his condition). My numbers were the best they had been,” he said.
Then, fate dealt another cruel blow in October.
Two days after a tonsillectomy, Fracker came down with double pneumonia. He had to be taken by medical helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Columbus. At one point, he was close to death.
“I had a tube to drain my lungs and a feeding tube. They were close to putting me on life support,” he said.
Brenda said, “He had a full face mask on, like 20 or 30 IVs going into him, hooked up to all those machines. Drew Morrison was the first one to see him like that, but he froze and was speechless. He didn’t want to scare Jared, and he tried to prepare the other friends that came up.”
Those friends were scared even before they saw him.
“Drew, Chase Cherubini and I were sitting in class, and we found out something terrible had happened,” said Fracker’s best friend, Valley point guard Mike Buchbinder. “We couldn’t even hear what the teacher was saying, we were so scared.”
But those friends, and the Licking Valley district, were major reasons for his revitalization. He spent three weeks in the hospital, before being released Oct. 29.
“We went up and played poker with him, brought lunch, caught him up on school,” Buchbinder said. “Tried to make it feel like things weren’t so different.”
Fracker was moved by the support from the district. “They made this huge poster, and half of the school signed it,” he said. “I got numerous cards and emails. This second grade teacher, who I didn’t even know, had her class make up this big banner for me with handprints.”
Through it all, his desire to get back on the court kept Fracker going.
“They told him he would probably not make it back to school, would have to graduate later,” Brenda said. “He kept saying, ‘I have to get back on the court.’ The trainer at Valley, Megan Scott, deserves a lot of credit for helping him get back.”
Jared said, “I lost about 20 pounds, basically all my muscle. I always knew I could make it back, maybe not to the best of my abilities.”
Fans found he was all the way back when he scored a career-high 25 points recently against Lakewood. In the following games, he averaged 11 points after only scoring around three.
“I think he sees it winding down for him,” Torbert said. “He has more energy now and has a little more bounce in his step. The knees robbed him of his athleticism. He could dunk as a sophomore. But he still can do so many things and is our best 3-point shooter statistically.”
Fracker said the great basketball atmosphere at Lakewood the night of his career high point total inspired him.
“Even with all the surgeries, and rehab every day, I get angry, because I still know I can do a lot better and feel like I could have played like this all along,” he said. “I like their gym, with the pep band and student section. It’s a great feeling in that kind of environment.”
It’s been a challenging season for Valley, which has lost six games in overtime along with other close defeats. But Fracker has no regrets, playing for the last time with several teammates he has been with since the fourth grade, and faced many times in the driveway. “Win or lose, it’s just about the experience,” he said. “Getting to play with my friends.”
Every year, Fracker has to return to New York and undergo heart catheterization, get an EKG, do fitness testing and blood work. He’s still on medication, and plays with constant pain in his knees.
But he plays.
“I had specialists tell me that I would never do sports again,” he said. “Throughout my life, I had people telling me, ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ Well, I can.”