By a front porch in Havertown, one of those graduation signs you now see all over. This was for the Haverford School, class of 2020. The name on the congratulatory sign, Jackybama.
The story behind the nickname goes back several years, Jack Cloran explained. His football team had been struggling a bit. Cloran, a sophomore backup receiver at the time, thought he’d lighten the mood. He put it on Twitter, the big news that he’d received a scholarship offer, to play football for the University of Alabama. His teammates loved it.
No, it wasn’t real, and, yes, that’s Alabama’s loss. Cloran is headed for Penn State. He’s just got business to take care of first. That sense of humor? He still has it, uses it maybe more than ever. Cloran tries to be the same guy he always was. That’s his thing. Nothing’s changed, even if the walk out to shoot hoops by the street now includes the use of a prosthetic left leg.
“Stoic … next play,’’ said his father, Steve. “Battle it and get over it.”
“In his mind, he would think everyone would just do that,’’ said his mother, Kath.
“I just try to look at the bright side of everything,’’ Jack said.
Think about that for a second. Times have been tough for you lately? Full stop. Take all this in, starting last fall, as Cloran finished up his senior football season, nothing much different in his life. He was starting by then, named the most improved player on the Haverford School team.
“During football season, in August, something popped doing a drill,’’ his mother said. “To him, it was like a nagging injury. He just sucked it up, never went to the trainer. We noticed every now and then he would be limping going back to the huddle. Not a lot. It’s football season. They’re all limping.”
After the season, Cloran planned to play CYO basketball for St. Denis. First time with the team, he came home and said he was a no-go.
“I can’t pivot, I can’t stop and go,’’ Cloran told his parents. “I can’t do anything.”
“Literally four days ago, you sprinted down the football field and you were fine,’’ his mother remembers saying.
“I know,’’ Cloran told her. “But I’m not fine.”
At first, a trainer said to treat it like a quad strain. If it wasn’t better in a couple of weeks, he’d go to the doctor. Four days later, there was a bump on his leg. Not good. An X-ray, then an MRI, which didn’t look good, leading to a biopsy, the day before Thanksgiving. The diagnosis came back on Dec. 4. Osteosarcoma. A form of cancer that produces immature bone.
“Interestingly, the treatment plan has not changed in like 20 years,’’ Kath Cloran said. “A couple of cycles of chemo, then surgery. They call it limb-salvage surgery. Very complicated. Then six months of chemo.”
Jack started that regimen at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, but two days in, he broke the leg. The surgery was a no-go. Devastating for everyone.
“We’re very strong in our faith,’’ Kath Cloran said. “It would have been a little miraculous. … We know God can do very big things. You just have to be prepared, all prayers don’t get answered the way we want them answered.”
Another MRI showed the tumor had grown -- “ridiculously, exponentially,’’ his mother said.
Did the broken leg cause it? No, the doctor said, this was a nasty tumor. The only option, take the leg. You can imagine the anguish. But Cloran, asked about his mindset in February, explained it. That’s when he said he tries to look on the bright side of everything: “At first, when they were trying to save my leg, I was going to have to be on crutches for a year. So I kind of thought, now I’ll be on my feet quicker.”
The night before his surgery, an acceptance letter arrived from Penn State. A mood-brightener. His friend Jack Schlegel asked if he could sleep over the night before. He did, and went to the hospital. Within two weeks of the surgery, his father took Jack up to Penn State. Steve Cloran, a hoop player and coach himself, goes way back with Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers, who rolled out the red carpet for them. They watched a game and met the team, and you can see video of Jack taking a shot inside Bryce Jordan Center, nailing it.
“Coach Chambers took care of us,’’ Jack’s father said. “We were able to see shootaround. Coach Chambers spent some quality time with Jack, gave him some gear. I’m still waiting for my gear.”
Partly because Jack’s maternal grandfather is Don DiJulia, the retired longtime St. Joseph’s University athletic director, Jack heard from various sports folks. Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari heard about Jack from Phil Martelli, had a trip to the area planned anyway, so he stopped by for an hour. (“A really down-to-earth guy,’’ Jack said.)
When Jack was told by his prosthetic specialist he shouldn’t wear dress shoes for the modified-by-pandemic Haverford School graduation, dad made a couple of phone calls and Jameer Nelson stopped by. “He gave me a really nice pair of Jordans for graduation,’’ Jack said.
Jack won a couple of senior class awards. The Class and School Spirit award is presented to a student “whose good citizenship, dedication to his class, and service to the School have made Haverford richer for his presence.” Also, the Yale Cup is awarded annually to the student, “not necessarily the athlete, who has done the most to promote athletics in the school.”
If Jack is out on the street shooting baskets with one of his four younger siblings, cars will drive by and honk or stop and yell that they’re rooting for him. (If they’re Villanova fans, they should keep that to themselves. His Hawk ties run deep.)
He’s had to keep rolling with more punches. He was the only one in the family who tested positive last month for coronavirus.
“It didn’t really affect me that much,’’ Jack said. “Once I figured out that I didn’t show any symptoms and I was fine, it kind of came and went.”
His dad wondered what more could be thrown at his son, but saw his son handle it like everything else.
“He just wants everybody around him to be comfortable, to treat him just like Jack Cloran,’’ Steve said.
Shoot some hoops? Jack talked on his front porch for a while, then put on his prosthetic and headed for the street, out ahead of everyone else on the porch.
“The prosthetic specialist told us, ‘He’s learning how to walk again,’ ’’ Steve Cloran said. “ ‘I just want you to be prepared, when he puts that leg on, he might not get it. It might not go so well.’ ”
None of that. Jack nailed it. His parents decided he had more athleticism than they’d realized. No falls. Just go.
Lately, Jack’s been a little more “quiet and somber than usual,’’ his father explained after the visit, since he’d just found out his oncologists want to add another round or two of chemo and additional nine-month medical treatment, which means he’s staring at finishing that in February 2021 instead of July 2020, which had been the original plan. So he was processing the news that State College would have to wait a bit longer.
His parents believe that sharing his story can maybe help somebody else, which helps everybody. Jack admits that it’s hard to see quarantining at home. But he gets it. He gets a lot of it, even if he doesn’t quite see why there are adults out there who see him as their hero for how he has handled all this.
Handling it means lots of sickness and little sleep. And deep reflection from all sides, plus requests for prayers for those siblings, his parents say, since they feel the effects of the stress of the tough weeks.
The guy they call Jackybama? Still there. (His football coach didn’t like that 'Bama joke quite as much, by the way. Jack got called in for a little chat. A long time ago, though.)
“He loves to lighten the mood with his leg jokes, or his lack-of-leg jokes,’’ his father said.
He has a leg joke?