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Playing for Jay: How a brave boy and the Florida Gators are inspiring each other

Some stories are bigger than football. Better, too.


The power of social media is pretty incredible. The power of a story can be just as great.

Last week was like any other game week for me — or so I thought it would be, on Monday, as I was keeping up with Gator football news while trying to piece together my thoughts on what the outcome of the Ole Miss game would be. I was making sure all my homework would be done before Friday so I could properly celebrate the game weekend ahead. I was following the hilarious Twitter "beef" between the Gainesville and Oxford police departments. And I was, of course, planning my perfect game day outfit for Saturday.

As I was scrolling down my Twitter feed on Tuesday, though, I saw a picture of a little boy holding a sign that read "Dear Gators, I'm beating cancer. Please beat Ole Miss!" It wasn't just in passing: I saw the picture multiple times tweeted out by multiple Florida Gator accounts.

It caught my attention — and touched my heart — right away.

A bit of backstory: When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And to make a long story short, doctors in my hometown of Pensacola told my parents there wasn't anything they could do for me, due to the tumor's location of being on my brain stem; they gave me six more months to live from the time of my diagnosis. My parents were — understandably — not too crazy about what they'd been told, and went on to send MRIs across the country in hopes doctors elsewhere would have better news for me. Thankfully, doctors in New York responded and I was immediately flown up for treatment.

Since then, I've been stable for 14 years and counting.

Whenever I see anything having to do with cancer, it almost always catches my attention. When I see anything having to do with childhood cancer, it hits pretty close to home, and I am always instantly drawn in.

When I saw the picture of Jay, I immediately wanted to get in contact with his family. I wanted to know his story. And I wanted to get his story out there for other people to see.

I had first talked to Jay's mother and aunt at around 2 p.m. last Thursday, and I had researched the heck out of their little boy beforehand. I came across his Facebook group, called "Team Jay." It had over 10,000 members, and was chock-full of pictures of animals, Disney characters, and anything and everything related to the Florida Gators. Jay lives in Central Florida, and has grown up a Gator. His fall Saturdays are filled with rooting on his boys in orange and blue. He is also a massive Tim Tebow fan.

The Gators give Jay something to look forward to every Saturday. They're what keep him going and he absolutely loves to watch them in action. And, hey, he's got great taste: With the way our season is going at the moment, they're what keep me going and I absolutely love to watch them in action, too.

The Facebook page was originally created to update people about his treatment because it was so complicated. From what I read on the Facebook page, Jay visited the page everyday; it now served as a page where people could also post pictures and positive, encouraging messages. His mother still posts updates on Jay as well.

What Jay's incredible network of family and friends was doing for him was stirring. The why was the unfortunate part of the story: In January of 2014, Jay was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

His parents first knew something wasn't right when they noticed a bruise on the back of their son's leg that wouldn't go away; it looked different from a normal bruise, too. They became worried and took Jay to see his pediatrician. Jay was then sent to get blood work done, along with some x-rays. The initial x-rays came back negative. The blood work came back normal.

After further testing, though, his doctors broke the news to his parents: Jay had cancer. In fact, they had discovered so much cancer in his blood stream that Jay was in need of treatment immediately. He was admitted into Florida Hospital right away, and given three blood transfusions and chemotherapy treatment.

At the time, Jay was two weeks away from his sixth birthday.

In May 2014, Jay and his family were told his cancer had gone into remission. Jay is still undergoing preventative chemotherapy doses; the doctors have given him two more years left of it when they told Jay and his family his cancer had gone into remission. But remission is not total victory, and chemotherapy is not easy. Last September, that chemo left him on life support for three days, and kept him in the hospital for almost five weeks.

In February, Jay was bitten by a fire ant. Getting bit by a fire ant may not seem like that big of a deal to you or me, just a rite of passage for a young child in Florida — but for Jay's already weakened immune system, this was a huge challenge. Jay ended up with a major infection. He had to receive a course of antibiotics and had to briefly cease his chemotherapy to take it; then, he went through both at the same time. It has taken Jay so long to heal, because of taking both treatments simultaneously, that he's had to undergo three different surgeries — one so major that it left him with over 150 stitches.

And yet: Jay is now eight years old and is pushing his way to officially becoming cancer-free. He's on his way to officially being able to be called a "survivor." He's taken the Twitter world by storm after his aunt posted the photo of him with his sign. Jim McElwain, along with many other members of Florida's football team, even gave him shout-outs last week.

The football team also answered Jay's original message last Saturday in The Swamp: They beat Ole Miss. The victory was incredible to watch in person, and I can only imagine how big Jay's smile was as he watched it with his family at their very own tailgate.

Many Florida players had "Team Jay" wristbands on as they played that football game. Jay gave them that much more motivation for that win.

It's easy to get caught up in sports, to boil them down to how well a ball is thrown, or how fast a guy can run down a sideline. Sometimes, even fair-minded and good-hearted people come to the conclusion that "ball is life."

But, even though getting into heated rivalries and having mental breakdowns over games can be fun(?), Jay's story is a reminder that we should step back and look at life for a minute before (or after) looking at the weekly AP Poll. Life is more than records and stats. Life goes beyond the endzone, and outside the stadium.

Jay is taking on life head on, and he's just happy to be able to yell, "Go Gators!" while doing so. The joy he gets from sports is priceless.

And sometimes, the joy comes from an unexpected place. Remember the Gators' uniforms last Saturday? Those all-orange duds? It just so happens that the color for leukemia awareness is orange.

Coincidence or not, I still got chills. I wonder if Jay did, too.

If you would like to provide assistance for Jay and his family, you can do so through their GoFundMe page. For updates on Jay's condition, visit the Team Jay Facebook group.