(JENKS, Okla.) — As a member of his Oklahoma high school football team, Jackson Lilly says he learned that success on the field depends on an all-out team effort.
Off the field, the 17-year-old junior at Jenks High School in Jenks, Oklahoma, has found that lesson also applied to his year-long battle with stage 4 lymphoma.
“Definitely when I got diagnosed, the whole football team was there,” Lilly told ABC News.
He was diagnosed last March with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. He said he began feeling ill while on a spring break missionary trip to Guatemala, and initially thought he had contracted a stomach bug.
But when he returned home, his doctor found a mass obstructing his small bowel. On March 19, 2017, he underwent surgery to extract the mass from his small intestine and remove part of his large intestine and some lymph nodes.
“It’s scary,” Lilly said. “You’re shocked and you don’t really think it’s real.”
His teammates, coaches and entire school were there to support him every step of the way. Many football players even shaved their heads in solidarity when Jackson lost his hair while undergoing chemotherapy. Other students posted a video on social media of them yelling in unison, “We love you, Jax!”
After chemo, radiation treatments and seven surgeries, Lilly rejoined his teammates last week for spring football workouts, taking his first sprints on the field and pumping iron in the weight room, eager to make his comeback on the gridiron.
On March 12, a video posted on Twitter by one of his coaches went viral, showing a cancer-free Lilly ringing a bell in the school weight room, a ritual reserved for athletes who achieve their personal best. The footage shows him walking up to the bell as his teammates cheered, applauded and then mobbed him with back slaps.
“That’s the ultimate personal record for him,” Jordan Johnson, Lilly’s strength and conditioning coach who posted the video, told ABC News station KTUL in Tulsa.
Johnson said that even while Jackson was waging his battle with cancer, he stood on the sidelines during games to support his teammates.
“He was with us all through the football season, on the sidelines with no hair, going through chemo,” Johnson said.
For Allen Trimble, head football coach of the Jenks High School Trojans, Lilly’s fight was something he could relate to. Trimble, who has led his team to 13 state championship in 22 seasons, had endured his own battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2016 and almost retired from the sport.
“You and I both know what it’s like to be in a tough battle,” Trimble said in his own video tribute to Lilly. “You get to ring the bell in the weight room and that inspires me.”
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