By Ryan Kaczmarski
No athlete wants to be told that he or she cannot participate and compete. Unfortunately, this is the case for Fairview High School’s Jacob Johnson.
Johnson had been competing in cross country and track since he was in middle school – which is a feat in itself, because he is stricken with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. But on April 20, Johnson was competing in the 400-meter medley relay at the Warrior Relays. The race started off great; Johnson looked like he was running strong and was making great strides; but in the final 100 meters of his leg of the relay, his pace slowed and he seemed to be grasping for air. After getting the baton to his teammate’s hand, he dropped face first onto the track.
“I rushed down to him, but at this level of competition there is no talking to the athlete, even if you’re the mom and it’s your baby,” Jacob’s mother, Jennifer Johnson, said. “I waited and mouthed to him, ‘Are you O.K.?’ He looked at me, confused, and said, ‘I passed out.’”
Johnson was taken to the doctor the following Monday, and an EKG performed on him showed he was no longer able to run or participate in any sport. He was then given a cardiac MRI to test for arrythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.
He went on to see a cardiologist, and had surgery to implant a recording device in his chest that records his heart functions 24 hours a day.
“We are very lucky Jacob didn’t die on the track,” Jennifer Johnson said. “We are even luckier that he was able to compete for as long as he did, and as well as he did, without having a heart attack and dying.
“Of course, to a 16 year old with a passion for running and competing, it’s hard to see the bright side.”
Now the Fairview Park cross country and track and field communities, along with the Johnson family, are coming together to raise funds for the American Heart Association by participating in the Cleveland Heart Walk on Aug 25. at Voinovich Park with “Team Jacob.”
Rallying around Johnson has been the normal thing to do for his teammates on both the track and cross country teams.
“The team wanted to stay involved as much as possible to help with Jacob’s mental and emotional ups and downs while waiting for test results to see his final condition,” Fairview High School head varsity track and field coach Richard Friel said. “(The team) continued to make him feel a part of the team, and this shows me also the quality of athletes we have within our program.”
“This would have been his third season (in cross country) at the high school, and he is going to be sorely missed,” Fairview High School head varsity cross country coach Andy Slack said. “He is just one of those kids that has had to overcome so many obstacles and barriers in his life, with the arthritis and now his heart condition.
“He really loved to be out there with the team,” Slack added. “He loved running and was a good athlete. It’s just sad to see a kid who loves running so much, not be able to do that.”
Both coaches noted that they never had to deal with this kind of situation with one of their athletes before.
“I have had athletes who have gotten hurt and lost for the season, but not like Jacob’s condition, where we are talking about his life,” Friel said. “It was also inspiring for us coaches and athletes on how Jacob was able to fight through his arthritic condition from his freshman year and beyond. Not many kids would have such a drive.”
“It is truly devastating, because I know that Jacob is one of those kids that would have made running a life-long sport,” Slack added.
Johnson made it a point to stay around the track team during the remainder of the season, acting as photographer and cheerleader.
“It meant a lot for the team and us coaches (to have him around),” Friel said. “Jacob will always be a part of our program, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even though Jacob was restricted to taking pictures, it was something that was important to the kids and the coaches that needed to be done and help Jacob feel productive for his activity and support.”
Friel and Slack have both vowed that the Fairview running community will continue its support of Johnson in the present, and in the trying days ahead.
“Our athletes and coaches will always be there as his track and field brothers and sisters, and have him as a part of our program in some administrative and productive form,” Friel said. “We will always support Jacob and any organizations or sponsored events that concern his condition.”
“We are going to get as many people as possible to come down to the Heart Walk,” Slack said. “I know a lot of his teammates have already signed up for Jacob’s team. Whether they made a donation or not, they plan on being there to help support him and help support the cause.
“I think these kids have a tremendous sense of community and understanding of what Jacob is going through,” he added. “Everybody know that if (Jacob) had his choice in the matter, he would be out there running with us.”
Johnson ran for the first time since the Warrior Relays in late July without an episode, but most likely he will not be allowed to compete ever again. According to his mother, the run did take a lot out of him and he slept a lot later that day and the next day.
“He’s slowly easing into his ‘new normal’ and misses running terribly,” Jennifer Johnson said. “There is one thing we have learned from this, and that is, no matter what you’re doing, give your all, because you never know when it will be your last. Give it all you’ve got, with all your heart every time. That’s what Jacob did at the Warrior Relays.”
The Johnsons hope to know more about his condition after Monday’s visit to the cardiologist.
The family appreciates donations, but if you cannot make a donation, you can still join Team Jacob at no cost on Aug. 25 at Voinovich Park.
For more information, or to make a donation, go to http://share.heartwalk.org/M6Umfjf.