Tri-Valley senior Austin Spencer and varsity boy's basketball coach Jon Nelson are the IHSA's nominee for the 2015 NFHS Spirit of Sport Award
Tri-Valley High School boys’ basketball coach Jon Nelson (pictured right)
sums up his commitment to his players in simple, but serious terms: “I tell people that I have two daughters, and that my basketball players are the only sons I will ever have.”
Nelson has lived by that creed over the past two years, using his mutual love of basketball to forge a bond with one of his players, while also helping him overcome overwhelming odds.
“Overwhelming” is actually not even close to an accurate description of what Austin Spencer (pictured left)
has endured over the past two years. “Unprecedented” is a much more appropriate adjective.
Austin was diagnosed with HLH (Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis) and XLP2 (X-linked lymphoproliferative disease) in June 2013, and is believed to be one of approximately 50 people in the world currently living with the deadly immune deficiency disease. The sad reality is that in the majority of cases, HLH and XLP2 appear in the first year of a child’s life, and almost always have fatal results.
Austin broke into Nelson’s varsity rotation as Tri-Valley’s sixth man as a sophomore, and was poised to take on a big role during his junior campaign. About six weeks before the start of his junior year, he returned from a summer trip to Chicago feeling tired and ill. Initially believed to be mononucleosis, a week long fever stumped local doctors, who sent him to the Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria. Over the course of a three-week hospital stay there, he learned his diagnosis. With so little known about HLH and XLP2, Austin and his younger brother Mason (who was also found to also carry HLH and XLP2) were treated at the Children's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there that the decision was reached for both to have bone marrow transplants.
“It was my decision to have the transplant,” explained Austin. “I knew the risks and I talked it over with the doctors, my parents, family, and coach (Nelson). There was a chance I could have recovered and been fine without the transplant, but with so few cases to draw on, we decided that the transplant was the best route.”
As he waited for a donor, the doctors ordered Austin to try and get in as good of shape as possible. In order to clean out his immune system for the transplant, he would have to go undergo 14 days of intense chemotherapy prior to the procedure.
In stepped Nelson.
“I would open the gym up for him a couple nights a week,” said Nelson. “Let him shoot and run, but more importantly give him the chance to talk to someone. He is a quiet kid and I can’t imagine what he was going through. I wanted him to know it was ok to be afraid of what he was facing.”
Those nights in the gym impacted the coach as well.
“It’s emotional to talk about, but I will never forget the low point for me,” said Nelson. “He (Austin) went to the baseline to run some sprints one night and he took one step and fell flat on his face. His body was failing him and he is looking up at me, wondering what is happening to him. That was the worst feeling in the world.”
Mason and Austin’s sister Raegan (who remained at Tri-Valley while living with grandparents) was a donor match for Mason, while Austin eventually found his donor in a 20-year old man from Germany. Austin began chemo in Cincinnati on New Years Eve, and had his bone marrow transplant on January 15, 2014. He had to remain within 20 miles of the hospital, so after a two week hospital stay, he and his family relocated to a nearby apartment.
“I was bed ridden for a while,” said Austin. “But even after I started to feel well, I had no immune system, so I couldn’t go out in public. There were times where I asked ‘why me?’ but I got over it. Everything happens for a reason and I was going to make the best of it. My goal became getting back (home to Tri-Valley) for basketball.”
Despite being 300 miles from home, Austin maintained his connection with Nelson the teacher, as he continued to complete coursework as a Tri-Valley student, including an English class taught by his coach. Nelson and his family also made the trip to Ohio in July, planning a family vacation around checking in on the Spencer family.
As Austin’s condition improved, basketball started to become more of a reality. Four nights per week, following physical therapy, Cincinnati's Turpin High School opened its gym to Austin and his dad so he could workout.
His life over the next nine months became a mixture of school work, basketball and lab results. Each time he saw positive results in the latter, the chance of doing the two formers again at Tri-Valley became more realistic.
“I was in constant contact with coach during that time,” said Austin. “Talking about English class or basketball or whatever, we grew really close. Every time I got lab results back, he was second to know after my parents.”
Nelson admits that in the back of his mind, at times he wondered if Austin returning to play his senior season was a realistic goal. Thanks to some help from Apple, he started believe.
“One night his parents Facetimed me from the gym (Turpin),” said Nelson. “They are holding up the iPad camera and I am watching Austin sprint around, run drills, making shots from all over. I am thinking maybe he actually can come back and play some for us in the second half of the season.”
Nelson’s optimism coincided with the plan set forth by doctors, who had circled his one-year transplant date, January 15, 2015, as the day they hoped he could return to school in Illinois. Austin’s perseverance, coupled with improving lab results, obliterated that timeline, as he returned to walk the halls of Tri-Valley High School again on November 24, 2014.
He didn’t ease into things either, somehow convincing the doctors and Nelson to allow him to play in the season-opener that night. Austin started in the game, tallying a game-high 15 points in a victory. Days later the Vikings won the Thanksgiving tourney and Austin was named to the All-Tournament Team.
“It was absolutely unbelievable,” said Nelson. “It makes you realize that life is lot bigger than the game.”
Austin says this entire experience has “changed his perspective”, but his joy remains tempered, as his brother Mason remains in Cincinnati with his parents continuing to fight for his own recovery.
“I keep hoping he can follow in my footsteps and get better quick,” said Austin. “We were normal high school kids one day and then all this happened. It makes you realize that you can’t waste a day.”
Tri-Valley Athletic Director Brian Knutson cites a tremendous outpouring of support from the Tri-Valley high school community and surrounding communities (and even officials
) for the Spencer family, support that will continue to be necessary as the family remains split between Illinois and Ohio. Austin is the first to tell you that he hasn’t done it alone, crediting his doctors, family, girlfriend, friends, teammates, and all the strangers who heard his story and felt compelled to help.
Oh, and of course his coach.
“We have a special connection,” said Austin of Nelson. “But it is at a whole new level since all this has happened. We are going to be friends for a long time.”
***For more information or to donate to the Spencer family, visit www.cotaforteamspencer.com