Jack Aniello stands before his team, his pale face turning red as he trembles softly. At six foot three inches, he stands out from the rest of the football players. However, right now he wishes he could just blend in.
Over a hundred worried eyes, some knowing and some not, wait patiently for what their teammate has to say. Team meetings were not called for bumps and bruises.
The gym fell silent. No one dared adjust their pads, retie their cleats, or even cough. This was serious.
“This might be surprising…” Jack starts.
Jack froze among his football friends. Sharing the news just helps solidify his worst nightmare come true. Tears fill his hazel eyes, striking home the reality of the situation. There was no waking up from this nightmare, only waking up to it.
Ben and Cole Aniello watch as their brother struggles to find the right words-the same words which caused an eruption of confusion in their home only hours before.
Why Jack? Why now?
“…but today I was diagnosed with lymphoma,” Jack manages to choke out.
The sixteen-year old broke down right there. This was his low.
His lips quiver and his eyes fixate on the floor. Jack’s teammates’ eyes fell to the floor as well. Everyone could sense the emotions in his voice.
Horror. Dismay. Confusion.
“I didn’t understand why it had to happen to me,” Jack says reflecting on the day he was diagnosed.
Head coach Kirk Peterson, who was standing near Jack while he revealed the news, put his arm around the distraught teen. Peterson, a usually quick-witted and stoic character, found himself at a loss for words trying to console his team, and more importantly, Jack.
“You only get to be a senior football player one time in your life, and that got taken away from him,” Peterson says.
No words of encouragement could bring back Jack’s senior season. No forced smiles could prevent his hair from falling out. No hugs could take away the future he now faced.
Throughout summer workouts, Jack noticed something was wrong. He found himself struggling to put up the weight that was normally seen as a warm-up in his eyes. During conditioning, Jack slumped to the back of the pack, an unfamiliar place for the fairly quick lineman.
“I noticed I wasn’t getting any stronger… running wasn’t getting any easier,” Jack says.
The most reoccurring symptom for him was coughing. And coughing. And more coughing.
Days before the team’s first practice, Jack had an X-ray done on his lungs, revealing the cluster of black spots. His family physician recognized the potential severity of the situation, and recommended he receive an MRI.
Jack still showed up to practice, and watched his team walk through drills without him. Questions naturally developed from his teammates. Jack answered them, but he hated the attention.
Everyone had an opinion on the issue, but cancer was still a far cry from any speculation. If anything, people would tell Jack to lay off the cigarettes-jokingly, of course-or he’d get lung cancer.
“It didn’t really bother me,” Jack begins, “unless they wouldn’t stop making jokes about it.”
Jack went to Lakeside Hospital to receive an MRI. The call came in 20 minutes later, before he even stepped foot out of the hospital.
On August 8, the senior defensive lineman was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma, ending his last year of football and altering his life dramatically.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a recent medical improvement have increased the survival rate of Hodgkin’s lymphoma to 86.2 percent. Jack was in for a battle, but the odds were in his favor.
The news spread quickly. First, Jack’s three brothers, including his twin, Ben, were informed.
Peterson was the next to find out. Knowing Jack was receiving the MRI, he had been waiting for the news on him, hoping to get his potential starting defensive end back on the field. More importantly, though, back to health. Jack’s dad emailed Peterson immediately after the family found out.
“It felt like a jolt went through my body,” Peterson says.
Peterson was under the impression, like most of his players, that Jack was only a little sick. Jack claimed he’d be back in a few days. A week at most. Everything changed with the diagnosis. Cancer doesn’t go away in a week. Antibiotics were not going to get Jack back on the field. Peterson knew Jack was in a battle for his life.
“I would’ve liked to play,” Jack says, but he knew with what he was going through, that football was not his number one concern. Beating cancer trumped any obstacle Jack ever dealt with, and he was determined to do so living as normal as he could. Jack never lived for the limelight. Cancer would not change that.
The spotlight is not easily avoidable for Jack. When his hair began falling and he missed multiple days of school, the questions and unwanted sympathy came in abundance. He hated the attention. Absolutely hated it. Anything from “How are you feeling?” to “How bad is it?” Cancer was not the desired topic.
“I’ll tell them I’m fine, but on the inside, a fire is burning,” Jack explains.
Jack found an escape from the questions, and a way to keep his life moving through weightlifting. During the football season, when his teammates went through special teams and individual drills, Jack stayed inside, and lifted.
“[Doctors] told me it’d be best to keep my lifestyle going, so that’s what I’m doing,” Jack says.
Keeping consistent is all Jack wants to do, but obviously with what he was going through, everything had a catch to it. Jack had to limit benching to low weights because of how weak lymphoma made his lungs. The steroids helped his immune system and gave him a Paul Bunyan-like appearance, but beneath the surface Jack’s strength was deteriorating.
Although Jack tried to keep life consistent, nothing could fill the hole he felt from not being able to play football. At times, he felt connected with the group. Laughing, conversing, and connecting with his teammates. But at other times, cancer secluded him because he could not be with them on the field, making a difference in games.
The team knew Jack felt separated from the group. He was there with them every step of the way during the up and down season, but not playing created a void. Every game he stood on the sidelines, in street clothes, solidified this.
An idea came to Peterson. The Wildcat’s away game at North Platte created the perfect opportunity. No student section, no distractions, just a bunch of guys on a road trip. Minutes before the game, the players walked into the locker room to see a bunch of boxes, a surprise for the team. Peterson delivered a speech, but not about football.
He talked about Jack.
Football could not compare to weekly chemotherapy treatment, a weak immune system, and losing almost every hair follicle on his body. Peterson knew Jack would much rather run gassers than be hooked up to machines at the hospital multiple times a week, and he spoke of this.
When Peterson ripped open the boxes, he revealed black wristbands. Nothing fancy and not the lymphoma cancer colors, but symbolic nonetheless.
“I wanted Jack to know that we care about him, and that we are thinking about him,” Peterson says.
People have been by Jack’s side every step of the way. From the wristbands to the student section’s “green out” to support him. Jack has his supporters, but no one supports him more than his brothers, Ben and Cole.
After the day Jack was diagnosed, his household had not changed. For his brothers, the news was a tough pill to swallow, but something they learned to live with.
“After about a week, I got with it. It’s something you have to deal with,” Ben, his twin brother, says.
Once the shock wore off, the three brothers returned to their usual ways. This included watching Cole perform weird antics, and encouraging him. Cole does just about anything Jack and Ben dare him to do. Running shirtless in the rain around their backyard, wearing an oversized cowboy hat in Walmart, or his classic hillbilly impression, featuring an impressive underbite, Cole is always ready to make his brothers laugh.
“He’s a constant comic relief, and it’s awesome,” Ben says.
In the third week of the season, “Big Boolin,”Jack and Ben’s nickname for Cole, joined his brothers on the field for varsity games. Being the fourth sophomore called up, coaches obviously see a lot in Cole. Standing at six feet and four inches and weighing roughly 260 pounds, the defensive tackle is hard to miss.
Jack loves the improvements Cole has made as a player, but some lighthearted jealousy has brewed from Cole’s success, both from Ben and himself.
“I don’t really like how he got all the football skills,” Jack jokes.
Even when the pads come off, it is rare to see the brothers without one another around. They talk about a lot of things, but they never talk about cancer. Not because the subject is tough to talk about, but because cancer does not label Jack.
“We are close. Cancer hasn’t changed that,” Cole explains.
Jack underwent his first round of radiation on November 21st. The final stage in his cancer treatment.
Despite the horrific connotations connected with radiation, Jack has described his treatment as uneventful.
“I just lay there and let it happen to me,” Jack explains.
With one month of radiation left, life is looking up for Jack. Coincidentally, the day after his final treatment, Jack and his family are going on a cruise.
In June, the Make a Wish Foundation will be paying for a fishing trip to Alaska for the Aniellos, where Jack hopes to catch some salmon and enjoy family time.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been in Jack’s life for less than five months, but cancer left its mark. It took his senior year of football, kept him from attending homecoming, and reeled in unwanted attention.
But when the scars heal and his hair grows back, Jack will finally be able to return to his daily routines.
Stronger than before.
*First appeared in print in Dec.