NORTH ANDOVER — Jackson Quinn never saw himself as a clutch performer, particularly on a wrestling mat and especially heading into the final match of the day against Brooks School’s biggest rival, Belmont Hill.
The first-year freshman wrestler from Andover, who was 2-9 and taken more than his fair share of beatings as a rookie at the 110-pound weight class, was the last match of the day with the Independent Schools League championship on the line.
It was pretty simple as he walked onto the mat with Brooks ahead 34-32. He loses and Brooks loses the league title and its 10th straight against Belmont Hill. He wins and, well, as he witnessed, a party for the ages broke out.
“I was very, very nervous,” Quinn, 14, recalled. “I was almost sick to my stomach when I realized it would all come down to my match. But I had to find a way to not think about that.”
What he failed to realize before that match on Saturday was the fact that nobody in that gym that day, was more ready for the challenge than he was. Nobody.
Three years earlier, Quinn had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a treatable form of leukemia. And as his father, Richard Quinn recalled, it was a day he will never forget.
“My wife and I were nervous, as we told him about the diagnosis, that he had cancer and leukemia,” he said. “He looked us in the eye and said, ‘I can’t wait for the day when I will say I beat cancer.’ I looked at him and said ‘That’s the greatest gift anybody ever gave me in my life.’”
It wasn’t easy. There were many of days in which his son would vomit for hours. He’d get bloated, chubby cheeks. He lost his hair. And then there was the heavy legs.
“The heavy legs was brutal,” recalled Jackson Quinn. “The treatments were tough, but the after-effects were tougher. I had to spend so many days in the hospital. I hated it. I hated lying down and doing nothing.”
The steroids, radiation and chemo treatments lasted for 21/2 years, the last of which was March of 2013.
“The thing was I wrestled in high school (in Virginia) and I always wanted him to wrestle,” Richard Quinn said. “Wrestling is a great sport because you have to be tough. Nothing about the sport comes easy. I was pretty good in high school. And the irony was that I was the same weight he was, about 100 pounds as a freshman. But when we were talking about him starting in the sport he got sick. And we sort of forgot about wrestling.”
The only sport his son was able to play through the many treatments was baseball, his first love. But because of the treatment doses, his right shoulder was too painful to use. He loved baseball so much he learned to throw the ball left-handed and played outfield.
“I always thought that some day when a story like this would be about Jackson, it would be about him hitting a homerun or winning a big baseball game,” Richard Quinn said. “I never even considered wrestling.”
In fact, his real expectations for his son’s wrestling career would be that he’d get over his struggles this year and want to wrestle as a sophomore.
When Jackson Quinn arrived at Brooks, wrestling was not even discussed ... until two wrestlers told him the team didn’t have a 106-pounder.
“They really talked me into it,” he said, adding that although he was six to eight pounds less than most of his foes. “I figured I’d give it a try.”
Which brings us to Saturday.
“We all knew before the match that it was probably going to come down to last match,” Richard Quinn said. “I told my wife, Julie, the only thing we don’t want to happen is have Jackson’s match as the last match.”
When the pre-match lot was drawn to select the first match on Saturday, the 116-pound weight class was chosen. That meant, as he had dreaded, that his son’s match would be last, probably for “all the marbles.”
But, his son had some confidence in himself.
“I hadn’t wrestled the kid before but I figured I had a pretty good chance against him,” Quinn said. “I honestly did.”
For about the first 90 seconds of the match, Quinn and his Belmont Hill competitor fought to a stalemate. For most of those 90 seconds, he held on to his opponent’s right leg. With the Belmont Hill wrestler appearing to have Quinn set up for a “cradle,” Quinn broke away and put the Belmont Hill kid on his back.
“I was not going to let go of his leg,” he said. “I just wasn’t going to let go. I think that helped when I eventually was able to turn him on his back.”
The crowd went into a frenzy as Quinn slowly attempted to get both of his opponents shoulders on the mat. It took about 30 seconds before the referee slammed the mat for the pin and Brooks’ victory.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of big wins here and that might be the biggest,” said Brooks long-time wrestling coach Alex Konovalchik, whose sons Andrew and Nick are two of the school’s top wrestlers. “We’ve had some tough, tough losses against Belmont Hill. We hadn’t beaten them in 10 years. And then this, with Jackson pulling it off. It’s been a few days and I still get chills talking about it.”
A video of the match was taken by his mom. One of the poignant scenes was seeing a girl run across the mat and give Quinn a hug about 30 seconds after the match. It was his older sister, Megan, a senior at Brooks.
“My dad was worried about me coming back next year, but I’ve always known that I would continue to wrestle,” Jackson Quinn said. “It’s a tough sport. You have to work hard every day. It’s not easy. I think that’s why I like it.”
While he is cancer-free, Quinn must remain that way for another two years before he is “cured.”
His next match is tomorrow at the ISL Tournament, which is back at Belmont Hill. He smiled when the thought of returning to his greatest moment of his athletic career.
“It still makes me smile thinking about it,” he said. “I didn’t know that I had it in me. But I did.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.
What is ALL? The form of leukemia Jackson Quinn of Andover had was acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is also considered a cancer of the white blood cells characterized by excess lymphoblasts. Malignant, immature white blood cells continuously multiply and are overproduced in the bone marrow. ALL causes damage and death by crowding out normal cells in the bone marrow, and by spreading (infiltrating) to other organs. ALL is most common in childhood with a peak incidence at 2-5 years of age, and another peak in old age. Cure is a realistic goal, as about 95 percent of children have continuous disease-free survival for five years and appear cured, while 30 to 40 percent of adults have continuous disease-free survival for five years. "Acute" refers to the relatively short time course of the disease (being fatal in as little as a few weeks if left untreated) to differentiate it from the very different disease of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which has a potential time course of many years. It is interchangeably referred to as lymphocytic or lymphoblastic.