READING, Ohio – Jake Swanner jogged slowly and purposefully from Reading’s far sideline for the first play of the game against Summit Country Day Friday night at Reading’s Veteran Memorial Stadium.
Approaching the line of scrimmage, Swanner, a senior, checked with the line judge, as wide receivers often do, and dug his cleats into the grass to gain some traction.
The Summit defender who met Swanner’s gaze out on the boundary was Paul Wilson Jr., and for a moment, what appeared to be a normal play – a six-yard toss sweep to the left in the opposite direction of Swanner and Wilson – was anything but, because both young men are cancer survivors.
Diagnosed with bone cancer three years ago, Swanner, who celebrates two years of remission this month, was told when diagnosed that his career was over, that his leg was too fragile for contact.
Friday night, in a 14-7 Reading win, he got another chance. With the Blue Devils wearing gold socks in honor of September being pediatric cancer awareness month, Swanner, who’s a student coach, suited up as a captain with a guarantee that he would be on the field for the Blue Devils’ first play on offense.
Well, with its victory formation in the game, Swanner entered again for the second time as Reading took a knee while its student section, also wearing yellow and gold, cheered “Swanner.”
“Tonight was probably the happiest moment of my life because I got to put on the pads again and go out there and do what I do,” said Swanner, smiling in front of the setting sun. “I can’t put it into words. I’m just so happy because I never thought I’d get to do this again. If I can do this again, there’s obviously more stuff that I thought I couldn’t do, that I could do now.”
Standing just behind the fence surrounding the field, Jake’s mother, Joey Swanner, cried as her son took the field. For three years, she watched him deal with the reality of losing something he loved: sports.
Friday night, she saw him take back what he thought he’d lost.
“I’m just excited for him and so happy that he finally gets to get back on the field again because he thought he never would,” said his mom, through tears. “He’s been playing football since he was 6.”
There’s no question, Jake lost something to cancer. More than what the surgery removed. It’s also true that he gained something.
“When they told him he couldn’t play anymore, he was devastated,” said Joey. “That was the only time he cried. He didn’t even cry when we told him he had cancer, but he balled his eyes out when they told him he couldn’t play anymore.
“As soon as he was done with (his second round of) chemo it was the middle of the football season and he had already started coming to games and practices and that was the beginning of him becoming a student coach … it’s kept his spirits up tremendously.
“He’s been amazing. He smiled through all of it. He would put on a concert at 10 o’clock every night in the shower (at the hospital). All of the nurses knew that was the time he took his shower and they would bring in his linens and then they would go back out and wait for him to get in the shower, then they would come back in and listen to him sing and they did that for the longest time and he never knew anyone was in there … he would just jam out.”
Jake Swanner played football Friday night. So did Paul Wilson Jr. Reading won the game, but this was one of those games where the final score wasn’t the storyline.
“I was talking to coach (Ken) Minor, who’s a long time, Hall of Fame coach here, before the game, and I said, ‘You know what, whether we win or lose, in 30 years, I’m not gonna remember it, but I’m gonna remember putting Jake out on the field,’ and that’s something that’s really cool,” said Reading head coach Rob Page. “I just told Jake, I said, ‘When you go out there, take a second, take a deep breath, and I want you to look around because you’re gonna remember this forever and it’s a special moment.’
“He just thanked me and I said, ‘You don’t have to thank me, you’ve earned it.'”