Rivals unite to support football player fighting rare cancer


RAPID CITY (AP) – On a warm Friday evening in early October, the Rapid City Central and Rapid City Stevens football teams were gearing up to face off in another annual clash at O’Harra Stadium.

The anticipation of the rivalry game lived up to the hype, as the Cobblers overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to edge the Raiders 32-28.

But as fans on both sides of the bleachers cheered, chanted and clapped for their respective schools, divided by the fire engine red and royal blue garments they wore, a unifying message connected the two crowds, was displayed on the north end zone video scoreboard, and even made its way to those competing on the field.

Rapid City was Jalon Strong.

Back in July, 11-year-old Jalon Janke, a student at West Middle School, began complaining of knee pain. His family initially thought of it as an injury related to his baseball season, which had recently concluded. They iced his knee and after the pain failed to let up, saw a doctor, who said it was growing pains, the Rapid City Journal reported.

The Broncos, a sixth- and seventh-grade youth team in the Rapid City Midget Football Association, started physical fitness testing a few days later ahead of their season, which is where Jalon, still experiencing discomfort, caught the eye of head coach Shane Lillebo, who said Jalon was among the first to return from a run.

Lillebo chose Jalon to be one of the team’s leaders, selecting him to help lead stretches and other team activities.

“During that first day of testing, I knew there was something wrong with his knee, but he was out there pushing as hard as he could,” Lillebo said. “He was doing everything he could, and quite frankly, he tested really well even with his knee bothering him.”

Emily Delzer, Jalon’s mother, told Lillebo her son might not be able to play this year, and when Jalon showed up to a later practice, Lillebo inquired about his knee. Jalon told him he had cancer.

An MRI at Black Hills Orthopedic and Spine Center revealed a mass on Jalon’s knee. He then spent a week undergoing tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The results came back Aug. 28, diagnosing him with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer found in legs that can spread to other parts of the body.

“It was pretty depleting because we were still very hopeful it was possibly benign,” Delzer said. “The only thing you can do is hope, and he was very hopeful, so when we found out that that’s what it was, it was pretty disappointing and really scary as a parent, not knowing what the treatment was going to look like and not having any experience with that before.”

The MRI and bone scan revealed the cancer had not spread beyond the knee, and a treatment plan was formed. Jalon would undergo 10 weeks of chemotherapy and surgery in November, followed by 19 more weeks of chemo.

Jalon started out strong during the first three weeks, Delzer said, but the treatment proved to be rough on his body. During a recent two-week period off of chemo and at home, Jalon had a fever, mouth sores and was readmitted to the hospital for a blood transfusion.

“He’s still fighting, but he’s pretty upset right now,” Delzer said a couple weeks ago. “He’s just frustrated and in pain.”

Even when he’s home, Jalon can’t have friends over due to COVID-19 and his compromised immune system. He has, however, been visited by Lillebo, who has been a supportive figure from the start.

Lillebo’s daughter, Shelby, died of cancer in February after two years of treatment, and during that time, Lillebo and his wife discovered tips that made treatment a little bit easier. While he was previously unsure why he even agreed to coach a football team this year and that the news of Jalon’s cancer was a “gut punch,” he said he eventually realized he was meant to meet Jalon and his family.

Lillebo told Delzer about organizations that help with childhood cancer, such as Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, gave her gift cards for food and travel and provided Jalon with gift cards for his own use.

He also knew that the port used for chemotherapy gets flushed with a saline solution that forms a poor taste in the mouth, so he bought Jalon a Sam’s Club bag of 500 Dum Dum lollipops for relief.

“It lets people know they’re thinking about you, that they care and they want to help. Knowing you have so many people around who do want to help is really comforting,” Lillebo said. “For (my wife and I) personally, it’s a way of not letting my daughter’s experience go to waste. To help the next situation going along be any bit easier that we can make it is important for us.

Laurie Sobczak befriended Delzer when the worked at Pinedale Elementary School, where Delzer is a teacher. Her son and daughter, Rapid City Stevens juniors Cade and Bailee Sobczak, were former students of Delzer’s, and used to babysit Jalon.

When the two learned of Jalon’s diagnosis, they wanted to see what they could do at Stevens to help. They initially came up with the idea of conducting a 50/50 raffle at the Central-Stevens football game Oct. 2, but Cade inquired about making and selling t-shirts at the game, and after Laurie made a few phone calls, they had a design made with #Jalonstrong on the front.

It was then Bailee who offered the idea of extending beyond Stevens and making the evening a community event, dedicating the game to Jalon. The Sobczak’s decided to make blue shirts and red shirts for both schools.

“This came up in a matter of minutes. It all just kept snowballing. They just wanted to do something,” Laurie said. “I don’t know that they thought it was going to turn out to be such a big event.”

Cade and Bailee created an online store for the shirts and sold 150 before kickoff. Laurie said they didn’t have a specific goal in mind for the amount of money they wanted to raise, but received around $3,000, all for Jalon and his family. They even received a single $500 donation that night.

“I was shocked at how the schools came together to support him. I knew we’d get support from Stevens, and not that I didn’t think we’d get support from Central, but that was very impressive, just to see the community come together,” Laurie said. “We had checks written to us, and they didn’t even ask for a t-shirt. That’s what’s really heartwarming; just to see the community come together and support him when they don’t even know who he is.”

For Delzer, it was her first night out since her son was diagnosed, and she cried when she walked in the gate. Jalon was unable to attend, as he was in a hospital in Sioux Falls, but Delzer FaceTimed him from the stands to show him all those in attendance wearing #Jalonstrong shirts, including coaches for both Stevens and Central. Even his Broncos teammates were there.

“I think he was bummed he couldn’t be there, but he thought it was pretty amazing that all those people were rooting for him,” Delzer said. “Sitting in those stands, looking out at all those cheerleaders having his name on their shirts, and then you stand back and look at the stands, and so many people have a shirt on that have his name on it, it helps me be stronger too, just knowing that all these people support our family.”

Delzer said it’s crucial that Jalon knows he’s not alone.

“Especially in a time like we’re in right now where you can see so much unkindness and so much conflict in the world, people coming together for someone they don’t even know,” she said. “I was just so happy for Jalon to see the community support for him, and that’s really important for him to see that, especially now because he’s so weak and sick. He needs to see that all these people are fighting for him.”

Jalon’s GoFundMe site has raised more than $16,500 with a goal of reaching $18,000.

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