Southern football coach Dawson Odums and his players speak proudly of the team’s ability to overcome adversity.
The Jaguars have seen numerous teammates sidelined — some temporarily and some for the season — because of injury and academic certification issues.
They overcame a 20-point second-half deficit to win an important game by a point at Alabama A&M three weeks ago.
They have navigated a road-heavy schedule to enter November in control of their destiny in an attempt to repeat as Southwestern Athletic Conference champions.
But when the players run onto the field at A.W. Mumford Stadium for their game against Alabama State on Saturday night, they’ll be led and inspired by 11-year-old James Leon Walker Jr., who has overcome adversity that far exceeds anything found on a football field.
Walker, known as J.J. to his family, friends, the Southern team and pretty much everybody in his hometown of St. Francisville, isn’t quite 5-foot but stands much taller than that in the eyes of his adoptive team.
At age 8, he was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an aggressive form of brain cancer that affects children almost exclusively and claims the lives of 90 percent of its victims within two years of diagnosis.
“It opens up your eyes,” Jaguars offensive lineman Anthony Mosley said, “because if this little man with a big heart can handle one of the world’s deadliest cancers, then we can overcome anything. We shouldn’t have an excuse for anything because J.J. didn’t give up.”
J.J. was diagnosed with DIPG 2 years and 7 months ago. He’s now symptom-free and not undergoing any treatment.
“It’s a remarkable story,” said Dr. Alberto Broniscer, who has treated J.J. since his arrival at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 2012.
The reality is that J.J. still has “an abnormality” that shows up on the MRIs that he undergoes every three months, including his most recent one Oct. 20. But so far, it’s not getting bigger.
“If it starts to grow,” said Denise Freeman, J.J.’s mother, “it will be more aggressive than it was at first.”
But so far, the degree of success in J.J.’s treatment as been “very, very rare,” Broniscer said.
Broniscer said he suspects there is something in the genetic makeup of J.J.’s tumor that made it slightly less aggressive than the norm.
According to St. Jude’s website, “DIPGs are high-grade gliomas that arise in the brainstem, which controls many vital functions, including breathing, heart rate and consciousness. Because the tumor infiltrates a brain region that is required for life, it cannot be surgically removed, which drastically limits therapeutic options. The lack of tumor tissue available for research also substantially impedes progress toward improving treatment.”
J.J.’s saga began in February 2012, a little more than a year after he began playing linebacker on the West Feliciana little league team. He developed a fever and started vomiting. Freeman thought he had a virus, an opinion J.J.’s primary care physician shared.
“Usually when J.J. gets sick, he’ll bounce back just like that,” Freeman said. “But I started noticing there was something different about his eyes. The teachers started noticing. They said J.J. would just sit there and stare. He had this glare in his eyes and he said, ‘Mama, I’m seeing double. I can barely see the board at school.’ ”
J.J. also was becoming lethargic and lying around the house.
“That’s not like J.J.,” Freeman said. “We usually have to call him in.”
She took him back to his doctor, who thought the cause was just an unusually strong and lingering virus. Then one day J.J. was getting ready to go to school, and Freeman said she “heard a boom.” Her daughter said J.J. fell but didn’t trip over anything.
“I knew then there was something else going on besides just a virus,” Freeman said. “J.J. had played contact football a whole year and didn’t miss a game or a practice, and then he started losing his balance.”
She took J.J. to the doctor a third time, and he had J.J. put his arms out and try to take basic steps without grabbing on to anything to aid his balance.
“J.J. couldn’t do it,” she said. “He tried four times and each time he fell to the side.”
The doctor instructed her to take J.J. to West Feliciana Hospital to have an MRI on his head. Before Freeman got home, the doctor called to tell her that the MRI revealed a lump in the back of J.J.’s head.
The doctor told her to get J.J. to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge as quickly as possible, and there they confirmed the presence of the tumor. The next day, J.J. had surgery to insert a shunt that drained fluid that was building up on his brain and affecting his vision and balance.
The continued accumulation of fluid could have been life-threatening, Broniscer said, but the shunt allowed the fluid to drain through J.J.’s stomach.
At that point, J.J. was forced to give up football because the contact could be devastating. After J.J. recuperated for a few days at Our Lady of the Lake, the family took him to St. Jude for treatment.
J.J. underwent six weeks of aggressive radiation and began a two-year clinical trial with a chemotherapy pill called Crenolanib. Freeman said the experimental treatment was done to “buy us time.”
“They were saying anywhere from six to nine months,” she said. “Even if a child makes it to a year, the percent is low, so J.J. is truly a miracle.”
J.J. lost some hair on the back of his head, but not all of it because the radiation was localized, and he dropped about 10 pounds.
“We lived (at St. Jude) for two months,” said J.J.’s father, James Leon Walker Sr. “And I kept telling my son, ‘We’re not waiting in the dark. God is going to make a way for us to see the light,’ and He has seen us through. Look at J.J. now. I told my son this: You’re my hero.”
Broniscer said J.J. is one of just two patients among the 30 participating in the clinical trial to survive for two years after diagnosis.
When J.J. finished radiation at St. Jude, the family returned to St. Francisville, and Freeman started looking for ways to keep J.J. close to football. First stop was West Feliciana High, where coach Robb Odom and his players immediately welcomed J.J. as an honorary team captain.
“We appreciate having J.J. around,” Odom said. “He’s a walking miracle, and he’s motivation for our team. Football is a game. J.J. has been in a fight for his life. He has helped up keep our perspective.”
The next stop was Southern.
Last spring, Freeman and J.J.’s father went to see Odums, who said he was “intrigued” by J.J.’s story.
“(Freeman) said, ‘Coach, I just don’t know how much time we have, but we want to enjoy the time that we have,’ ” Odums recalled. “We just want to do our part in trying to make somebody else happy.”
Odums immediately made J.J. a part of the team, going so far as to have a mock signing of scholarship papers before spring practice this year.
“We were signing him to a commitment to being part of the Jags,” Odums said. “We were signing him on as a brother, just letting him know that we’re here for you and, whatever we can do to put a smile on your face, we’re willing to do as a program.”
Odums assigned fullback Brian McCain, a senior and team captain, to be J.J.’s big brother on the team. J.J.’s siblings are sisters Jashai Freeman and Deneshia Walker.
McCain said he enjoys “mentoring the youth in general” and has “made sure I don’t take that position for granted.”
McCain, Mosley and two more Jaguars went to J.J.’s school, Bains Elementary, to celebrate J.J.’s last day of chemo March 24.
St. Francisville held “J.J.’s Day” to honor him May 25, just five days after his birthday, each of the last two years. Odums brought his wife and daughters to the celebration this year.
“It was like a birthday party,” J.J. said.
Freeman has been the catalyst for J.J. also becoming an honorary member of the St. Francisville Police Department, the West Feliciana Fire Dapartment and the West Feliciana Sheriff’s Office and K-9 unit.
“All of these different organizations I’ve talked to about J.J., it’s to lift his spirit up,” she said, “but it’s also to get the awareness out there. That’s my main thing — to get childhood cancer awareness out there and let his story be known and let it be an inspiration to others, because he’s definitely been an inspiration to us.
“That’s why I try to get his story out there as far as it can go — to reach other DIPG families. A lot of kids are passing away so young. Some are dying just nine weeks after diagnosis. It’s the worst form of brain cancer. The prognosis is so poor.”
J.J.’s family established the James Leon Walker Jr. benefit account at Whitney Bank to help pay travel expenses. The family already has made more than a dozen trips to St. Jude.
Freeman’s crusade has brought her in contact with several cancer support groups. Kim Bowman and her husband, Trey, started the Bella Bowman Foundation in honor of their daughter, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in early 2011 and eventually succumbed to a rare side effect — brain stem necrosis — from the proton radiation she received. The foundation helps families such as J.J.’s.
The foundation arranged for J.J. and his family to get the red-carpet treatment at the LSU-Kentucky game in Tiger Stadium less than 48 hours before J.J.’s most recent trip to St. Jude. J.J. had his picture taken with coach Les Miles and his family, several players and the cheerleaders. He even scored a pair of wristbands from quarterback Brandon Harris.
“To see that smile on J.J.’s face from beginning to end,” Freeman said, “it was priceless.”
J.J., like any 11-year-old, can be shy, but his smile has stuck with those who have met him.
“I’ve never seen J.J. without a smile on his face,” Bowman said.
Now that J.J. has left his mark throughout West Feliciana Parish and at Southern and LSU, Freeman has set her sights on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the Bayou Classic between Southern and Grambling on Nov. 29.
“I’m just praying that he gets a chance to lead them on the field at the Bayou Classic,” she said. “That’s one of my wishes for him.”
McCain recalled taking J.J. to see the latest “Transfomers” movie last summer. Big brother offered little brother carte blanche at the concession counter, but J.J. was reluctant to accept.
“He was like, ‘No, that’s fine. I don’t want you to spend a lot of money,’ ” McCain recalled. “And I was like, ‘Don’t worry about that. I got you.’ That right there showed me how mature he was for such a young age. It opened up my eyes and just made me sit back and smile.
“He’s pretty amazing. I want to be like him when I grow up.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.