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A model of strength

By battling back from cancer, he inspired teammates and hundreds of marrow donors

November 2011: Junior midfielder Jon DeCasanova made one assist in Eastern Connecticut’s 2-0 victory over Springfield.

Jon DeCasanova spent his 21st birthday as so many college athletes do, in the eye of a storm of teammates and friends who were simultaneously celebrating youth and growing old. But for DeCasanova, the latter was a dream, not a certainty. And that night, the group never saw the house lights come up, never heard “last call” bellowed over the music. Instead, they gathered for a few hours in the hospital, where DeCasanova was battling a rare cancer in his bones and blood that had a 99 percent chance of killing him. 

“It didn’t really matter what was going on for those few hours,” DeCasanova said of the September 2012 party. “It just mattered who was around me and who I got to spend that time with.”

When members of the Eastern Connecticut State men’s soccer team gathered a few months later to celebrate going 17-2-1 – the best season in program history –DeCasanova, their teammate, wasn’t there. He lingered in a hospital bed battling aplastic anemia. Despite the team’s success, DeCasanova’s absence at the banquet and in the locker room and on the bus and around campus muted the celebration. But this year, when the team gathered in January to reflect on another fruitful season, there were no half-smiles, no hearts burdened by guilt or grief.   

Eastern Connecticut State spent two seasons not only winning games, but fighting for their friend. A 2012 event to find bone marrow matches for him drew more than 600 people. The team and its coach have since enlisted other schools in the region to hold similar drives that have now found matches for nearly 20 people in need of bone marrow transfusions. His closest friends on the team visited him regularly, not only keeping him apprised of their success, but trying to help him realize he was a part of it.  

“I know that it was really hard on the guys and that some of them weren’t really familiar with having someone that young, that they knew, be sick,” head coach Greg DeVito said. “They did a really awesome job being there for each other and using it as a way to motivate them. Everything was for Jon in the huddle.”

DeCasanova returned to school this January because his health had improved rapidly after he took part in a study of an experimental t-cell infusion treatment. He was on campus earlier this semester when his doctor called with the news: DeCasanova was cancer-free. Coincidentally, the soccer team banquet took place only 48 hours later.

(L-R) May 2013, October 2013, January 2014. DeCasanova received T-cell infusions at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital (top left) as part of his treatment for aplastic anemia. At the time, he could barely walk on his own. Months later (top right), he was still fighting cancer but had worked hard to return to fitness. This year his team honored him with a character award (left).

After two seasons spent away from the pitch battling the disease that turned his own blood cells against him, DeCasanova joined his teammates to celebrate their season. He didn’t realize they were there to celebrate him. 

The team saw him stave off death, watching him plummet from 170 to 130 pounds during chemotherapy, then saw him balloon up to 215 as his body retained water. But at the banquet, he looked healthy in his black suit and bow tie, resembling the teammate who anchored the Warriors defense two seasons earlier rather than the friend withering away in a hospital.

“The year before was a sad time. It would’ve been his senior year, would’ve been his senior banquet,” DeVito said. “This year, the fact that he was healthy was really too good to be true.”

At the event, the team presented him an award honoring his character and strength and a framed, navy No. 11 jersey. It was the same one he had worn more than two years earlier when he scored the program’s first NCAA tournament goal in its five-decade history. 

“It definitely meant a lot,” DeCasanova said. “I didn’t even know the award was coming or anything like that. I think that’s the greatest part, not knowing and getting a surprise, and just being in that room with everyone. It’s great when that many people who’ve cared about you for so long are in one place.”

DeCasanova doesn’t know if he’ll ever put on a No. 11 jersey again. The treatment that saved him is in its infancy and doctors say his recovery will be difficult to predict. On the field or not, though, he plans to be part of the program next season as he works to complete his degree in sports and leisure management. He will stand by the teammates who stood by him, who worked to find a match, who unified and thrived through his struggle, who were there when their friend turned 21 – distracting him, if only for a few hours, from the fear of never turning 22.