Back in his 8h grade year, I first met Jason Garstkiewicz to write a story after he was diagnosed with cancer 10 months earlier. A three-sport star athlete, young Jason was seemingly following the footsteps of his father, a Division I football player.
But the doctors at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, the Mayo Clinic and Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center concurred that Jason needed to have his lower leg amputated.
Life and dreams suddenly changed for Jason.
Pediatric cancer really is as heart wrenching as life gets and five years ago no one really knew how Jason would react. He came from a caring and loving family with his mother, Pam, father, Gary, and younger brother, Kyle. And the Haddonfield community is as close-knit as small towns go. But really no one knew how life would unfold for Jason.
Remarkably, Jason Garstkiewicz not only turned his life into a feel-good story for the ages, but he also inspired others with each of his courageous steps on the way.
Playing football and golf with a prosthetic right leg at Haddonfield High School, Garstkiewicz was recently recognized by the South Jersey Coaches Association as its Most Courageous Student-Athlete
“I never realized how much I was inspiring people because what I was doing was just being myself,” Garstkiewicz said. “I was just so glad I was able to impact as many people as I did.”
Truly, his friends, teammates, parents of players, coaches, opposing players and an old sportswriter will never forget Jason Garstkiewicz as he moves into the next chapter of his uplifting story. They won’t forget how he played. They won’t forget how he made them feel.
In the fall, Garstkiewicz, who played tight end and defensive end for the Bulldawgs, earned the prestigious Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club scholarship award. However, there really aren’t enough awards to give Jason for what he did and how he inspired others.
Garstkiewicz was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer after a bump developed on his ankle following basketball practice in 7th grade at Haddonfield Middle School, where he played football, basketball and lacrosse.
After the diagnosis and then the surgery, he was simply just looking ahead to try and play sports back then. He was a kid who still had dreams and who still loved to run around and compete. So he wanted to keep doing what he always did. Nothing changed in his outlook.
Now, he realizes the change he made was mostly how other kids his age accepted their minor bumps and bruises as well as losses and setbacks. And how their parents accepted them, too.
“Definitely, looking back and putting it into perspective, I’m glad it happened to me and not someone else,” Garstkiewicz said. “I was able to kind of take it in stride and move on.”
Jason, who is 6-foot-5, will continue his education at the University of South Carolina in the fall. He will look to stay involved with athletics with the Gamecocks.
“I will definitely play club sports at South Carolina like intramural basketball and golf,” Garstkiewicz said. “And, I’d like to try and be an equipment manager for the South Carolina football team, just to stay involved somehow and football is my favorite sport and I’ve been playing so long it will be hard to part with.”
His father, Gary, played football at Duke University. The former Edgewood High (now Winslow Township) star was a safety with the Blue Devils. Gary stayed active in sports well after college ball. He was an excellent basketball player in men’s leagues around South Jersey for many years.
You have the feeling Jason will be playing sports, too, well into his adult life. Until then, Garstkiewicz said he is interested in majoring in business, specializing in sports and entertainment.
He also plans to stay involved with the remarkable Go4theGoal Foundation, which daily improves the lives of children with cancer. Go4theGoal, which provides financial support, implements unique hospital programs, funds research and grants children’s personal wishes, and Garstkiewicz said delivers hope to others.
“Going through this whole situation from having pediatric cancer to being able to look back and say ‘wow, it happened,’ it opened up my world,” Garstkiewicz said. “You never really know how many kids are affected by this and their families.
“I feel it is very important to get the word out.”
Jason got the word out by continuing to play sports and doing what he always did. He didn’t allow his life and dream of playing high school sports to change when his life did change.
And, on the way, he helped change so many of us.
Thank you, Jason.