No surrender: Jace Malek, a life-changing diagnosis and the incredible fight to keep chasing a football dream
MOSCOW, Idaho—At 5:36 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, Paul Petrino strolls into the University of Idaho's team meeting room. Players and staff members sit arranged in their usual manner: assistant coaches in the back, underclassmen in the middle and upperclassmen toward the front, with seniors in the first row. The room quiets as players lock eyes with their head coach.
In just over 24 hours the Vandals will open their 2015 season against Ohio University in the Kibbie Dome. Petrino, dressed in a black polo shirt and sweatpants, rattles off points of emphasis in the matchup: Defense, stop the run. Be the aggressor. Offense, win the turnover battle. Play with poise.
Petrino directs a staffer to dim the lights, and a large drop-down screen brightens at the front of the room. For the next three minutes players watch video clips of team workouts. The sounds of pad-cracking and whistle-blowing reverberate, while an energetic voice preaches about effort, determination and the virtues of teamwork. The video ends with a quote attributed to Vince Lombardi: "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender."
When the screen goes dark, the staffer flips on the lights. Petrino turns around. "Stand up and tell me why you're not going to surrender," he says. "Somebody."
One by one, Idaho players rise to their feet with responses.
"I'm going to fight through the pain."
"I'm not going to take a break tomorrow, and I know you guys aren't either."
The room again goes quiet. Petrino pauses, glancing at the first row of seats. "Jace," he says, "why would you not surrender?"
A bald player sitting only a few feet from Petrino shuffles in his chair. Jace Malek, wearing a pink Vandals T-shirt and black sweatpants, rests his leg on the ground next to a pair of crutches. He clears his throat.
"I have a lot of knowledge of people who have it worse than we do," Jace says. "There are a lot of people out there who are looking up to this team, to us, and they have it a lot worse than we do. We need to win for them and for the people who are supporting us."
Jace's teammates nod. They don't seem disturbed that a freshman—one who arrived to campus just two weeks earlier—is sitting in the front row, a spot typically occupied by seniors. That's because Jace faces a hardship far more daunting than anything on Idaho's schedule this season.
Before the diagnosis that changed his life—and before his road to recovery took an unexpected turn for the worst—Jace had football.
A standout freshman at Reardan High near Spokane, Wash., Jace earned all-district honors at both right guard and defensive end. He notched three sacks in his first high school game as the only non-senior starter on defense, and after a stellar debut campaign, Jace and his parents—his mother, Anna Ackerman, is a ranch hand, and his father, Dan Malek, is a truck driver for Coca-Cola—realized football could help pay for college. So Jace transferred to West Valley High, a Class 2A school located 23 miles east of Reardan, to play beneath brighter lights.
Jace quickly emerged as a force on his new roster. Eagles coaches started the bulky 6' 3", 230-pound sophomore on the offensive line, but that changed after he took some reps at fullback. West Valley coach Craig Whitney had to force defenders to stand up to the barreling Jace during practice, as most teammates would shy away from making contact with the star. Jace fancied himself as a real-life version of Tim Riggins, the bruising fullback played by actor Taylor Kitsch in the TV adaptation of Friday Night Lights. He even hoped to wear Riggins's No. 33 at West Valley. (The number was taken, so he settled on No. 99.)
By Jace's junior season, Whitney couldn't keep him off the field. "When he first got here, he benched 350 pounds as a sophomore," Whitney says. "We saw him run and he was one of the top four or five speed guys on the team, and he weighed 230 pounds." He played both fullback and defensive end while appearing on special teams during kickoffs.
Jace's do-it-all mentality piqued the interest of Petrino, who first noticed Jace when his son's high school team played West Valley on Nov. 1, 2013. Mason Petrino was the quarterback for Pullman High, and had developed a rivalry with West Valley and his friend Jace. That night the Greyhounds got the best of the Eagles with a 41–38 triple-overtime win, but Jace remembers the game for a different reason: He sacked the younger Petrino twice and chased down the quarterback in the open field. The latter play remains one of Jace's favorites on his highlight reel.
Petrino came away convinced Jace was a Division I talent. "We got back and said, 'We need to find out who number 99 is for West Valley,'" Petrino recalls. "That kid can play."
Jace was also a state wrestling finalist his first three years of high school, but he dreamed of playing college football. He went to recruiting camps at schools like Wyoming and Montana, and FCS Portland State offered him a scholarship. But in June 2014, just before his senior season, Jace took the hour-and-a-half drive from Spokane to Moscow to attend a one-day camp at Idaho. The following day Vandals' staffers talked to Jace on his way home and extended a scholarship. By September Jace had committed to Idaho, becoming the first player in Petrino's 2015 class.
The pain began that summer. A few weeks before his senior season, Jace felt a sting in his hip while lifting weights. At first he thought nothing of it; high school athletes are accustomed to minor pain and soreness. "I always thought it was just a pulled muscle," he says. So he iced his hip and forgot about it.
But the pain lingered. In September Jace took a hit during a game with Moscow (Idaho) High; afterward he mentioned the pain to Whitney, and team trainers assumed Jace had suffered a hip flexor. The next week Jace told coaches his pain hadn't subsided. Whitney limited him in practice, and Jace spent P.E. class at school icing his hip in the training room. Before games and practices, a trainer applied a numbing agent to Jace's hip. Still, he never missed a game during his senior season.
The following winter tested Jace's mettle. He would routinely wrestle a 285-pound teammate in practice, which took a toll on his sore hip. Jace and his family soon had enough. They visited a chiropractor and even a massage therapist.
The Maleks eventually met with an orthopedic specialist, who ordered an MRI. The scan revealed something no one could have seen coming: Jace had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that affects approximately 400 Americans 20 or younger each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Jace, only 17, had played his entire senior season with a tumor on his right hip, one that had ballooned to the size of a cantaloupe.
"When they said cancer, I just remember for Jace and I both, it was instant shock," Jace's mom says. "His life flashes before your eyes a little bit. You think, gosh, where is this path going to lead us now?"
Jace fit the profile of those most commonly afflicted with osteosarcoma: tall, male and between the ages of 10 and 30. In fact, teenagers account for about half of the 800 new cases of osteosarcoma in the U.S. each year. By the time doctors realized Jace had it, the cancer had already spread from his hip to his lungs. Scans pinpointed seven cancerous spores in his right lung and three in his left. Osteosarcoma that has reached a patient's lungs at the time of diagnosis is designated as Stage IV, the most advanced level of the disease. Patients with such "metastatic" tumors carry an average five-year survival rate of 40%, according to the American Cancer Society.
For Jace, the car ride home from the doctor was a blur. He would need to begin chemotherapy as soon as possible, and treatment was expected to last a year. He tried to process the diagnosis, yet his mind kept wandering toward something else. National Signing Day was only days away, and he was preparing to sign a Letter of Intent to play college football. He had countless questions. How will this affect my scholarship? Will I ever play football again?
One of Jace's first calls was to offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich, his primary recruiter at Idaho. Cinkovich had been visiting a prospect at nearby Coeur d'Alene High that day, but had planned to stop by West Valley's wrestling match to see Jace in the evening. At about 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, Jace called Cinkovich. He told the coach why he wouldn't be wrestling that night.
Jace's revelation reopened a wound that had just begun healing at Idaho. The program had lost its director of football operations, Mark Vaught, to cancer the previous November. Now the Vandals were facing another bout with disease, this time in a 17-year-old. "We'd just been through that," Cinkovich says, "so the word, in particular, was very, very touchy to us."
The news spread quickly. Whitney sat down in his office at West Valley and almost vomited when he heard. Bryce Erickson, Idaho's quarterbacks coach who helped recruit Jace, broke down and cried. Soon after Jace hung up with Cinkovich, his phone buzzed. It was Petrino. Jace said he understood the business of football; if Idaho needed to withdraw his scholarship to fill its roster, the school should do it. Players lose scholarships all the time, he thought. Why would he be any different?
But Petrino interrupted Jace, delivering the only good news on one of the worst days of his life: His scholarship was safe. "Nobody thought the scholarship would still be there," Ackerman, Jace's mom, says. "You don't expect the coaches and the team to say, 'Yeah, we still want you.'"
Says Petrino: "I called him and said, 'Jace, you've already been part of this family for a long time. All you need to worry about is taking care of yourself.'"
One week after the diagnosis, on Feb. 4, Jace signed his Letter of Intent at his home in Spokane, with Idaho coaches in attendance. The Vandals staff brought him a No. 99 jersey and a football signed by the team.
Jace remembers very little from his first two months of chemotherapy. The process was grueling, and fatigue and nausea defined his time at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Spokane. Looking back, many of his hospital and home visits blend together. "It's a lot of throwing up," Jace says.
While he was undergoing treatment, though, the communities in Spokane and Moscow banded together in support. Teachers and students at West Valley High passed out T-shirts and wristbands that read "Malek Strong," and a poster bearing the same message still hangs on the wall of the school's lobby. Whitney and his staff taped a three-foot photo of Jace to the door of the wrestling locker room, reminding those who pass through what true adversity looks like. Rival high school wrestling teams threw fundraisers to help the Maleks cope with medical bills.
As a kid, Jace used to help family friends in Reardan with ranch work. For $10 an hour he would feed and herd cattle and horses and buck bales of alfalfa. This spring local ranchers returned the aid; they held a fundraising rodeo and auction, donating items like belt buckles and saddles. One saddle was branded with "Tackle Cancer 99," a nod to Jace's high school jersey number.
As Jace went through chemotherapy this summer, Idaho coaches kept in close contact. They would call or text at least once a week, and made in-home visits whenever possible. Jace often returned from the hospital to find boxes full of cards from different position groups on the Vandals' roster.
After committing to Idaho, Jace attended all of the team's home games during the 2014 season. In turn, by the time he arrived on campus, Vandals' players already considered the freshman one of their own. "After two hours of practice, hard and grinding, if you're thinking to yourself, I can't do this, you just think of Jace and how he would do anything to be out there on the field with us," says Jordan Rose, a sophomore offensive lineman who hosted Jace on his official visit. "The fact that he can't makes you practice that much harder for him. He's basically my idol now."
Sometimes the Vandals' staff found itself coaching Jace during treatment. One day a family friend contacted Petrino and asked him to call Jace. A recent hospital visit had been particularly difficult, and Jace was in need of a pep talk. "I remember calling him and saying, 'Jace you've got to attack this like being a good player and being a good student,'" Petrino recalls. "'You've got to do it.'"
Amid treatment, Jace focused on staying positive. Maintaining a normal lifestyle was key. Last May, Cinkovich was out recruiting in Spokane and shot Jace a text message, just to check in. When he didn't receive a response, the coach grew worried that Jace had ended up back in the hospital. Soon a text came through with an address and the words "Go here." Cinkovich mapped the route and drove to the outskirts of Spokane. As Cinkovich passed a local ranch, a bald kid whizzed by on a four-wheeler.
"I was like, that's Jace. What the heck?" Cinkovich says. "He was out helping his mom and some family friends on a ranch the family friend owns. He was happy as can be."
One of Jace's most difficult days came in July. Doctors realized the chemotherapy hadn't been as effective as they hoped, and they were forced to amputate his right leg from the hip down. Both Jace and Idaho's coaches had previously held out hope that one day Jace would suit up for the Vandals. An amputation ended that dream. "The ride home was bad," Jace says. "It was emotional."
The news was crushing. But in remembering early conversations with Jace, Petrino called an audible. Once during his recruitment, Jace had made an off-hand comment about someday wanting to become a coach. So, Petrino thought, why not now? He offered Jace a spot as a student assistant on the Vandals' offensive staff, and Jace loved the idea. He spent hours in the football offices of Cinkovich and Erickson, and if Idaho finds itself with a big fourth-quarter lead one week, Petrino has decided he will let Jace call a play or two.
Petrino sees plenty of would-be coaches come and go, but says the ones who stick have a passion for the game. Jace embodies that despite facing obstacles few can fathom. "There are a lot of 18-year-olds who are healthy and can play who don't want to be in every single meeting," Petrino says, "and he does."
Cancer impacts different people in different ways. It's scary and overwhelming and unrelenting, and it has a way of impeding its victims' ability to find joy in everyday activities. No matter how grim a prognosis is, however, hope is an integral part of the battle for patients and their families. It's a means of pushing forward amid what can often be unthinkable pain.
Still, every case will inevitably arrive at a crossroads. In one direction is recovery: the long-awaited end of treatment, and the resumption of life as it formerly was. In the other is the worst-case scenario: a terminal diagnosis, and a focus on making one's final days, weeks or months as fulfilling as possible.
Recovery remained Jace's plan when he and his mom returned to the hospital in Spokane on Sept. 23. Another round of chemotherapy was set to begin, but doctors shocked Jace when they said his latest scan showed that the cancerous spores on his lungs had more than tripled in numbers since January. Moreover, spots that once measured a half-centimeter or smaller had expanded to twice that size.
Doctors informed Jace that his four rounds of chemo hadn't worked, and that treatment was no longer an option. He had just three to five months to live.
Jace finally broke down. For months he had refused to let cancer break him. But after losing a leg, a football career and any semblance of a normal life to cancer, Jace now knew the disease would prove fatal. Sobbing alongside his mother, he realized he was powerless to stop it. "That was the hardest I've seen him take any news since it started," Ackerman says.
In the weeks following the devastating news, Jace focused on doing what he loved most, which meant remaining a part of Idaho football. When not making occasional trips to Hanger Orthopedic Group in Seattle, where doctors fitted him with a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg, he continued to pop into coaches' meetings and attend practices. He traveled with the team to its Oct. 3 game at Arkansas State, and last Saturday he went to the Vandals' homecoming matchup with Louisiana-Monroe. After the 27–13 win, Petrino presented Jace with the game ball in front of a home crowd, while the student section chanted his name.
Jace has been a continued source of inspiration for Idaho's players and coaches, who marvel at the way he has maintained a positive attitude despite being given the worst prognosis imaginable. "He's just amazing," Petrino says. "He still wants to be around all the time. There's just a special bond our players and coaches have with him."
Last Sunday Jace experienced a major milestone in his life: He married his longtime girlfriend, Libby, in a small ceremony on a Rockford, Wash., farm. Everyone came together to give the couple a wedding to remember; the caterer, the florist and the venue all donated their services. Jace wore jeans and a flannel shirt and, with the help of his new prosthetic, walked his mother down the aisle in front of about 70 attendees. He and Ackerman even shared a dance at the reception. "To be able to witness him and Libby get married, with all of the bad news we've gotten lately, it was creating memories," Jace's mom says. "I feel so thankful I got to see that."
She is also thankful for a memory that was created seven weeks earlier, before Jace learned he would likely succumb to cancer. On the first Thursday in September, on a brisk fall night steeped in emotion, Jace got to take part in a moment he had long envisioned.
Sixteen minutes remained until kickoff of the Vandals' season opener against Ohio on Sept. 3, and Jace rode into the middle of the Kibbie Dome on a John Deere Gator. The P.A. announcer introduced him as an honorary captain, proudly wearing a No. 99 jersey. He stood at midfield and led fans in a chant, pointing his crutches to the stands as the crowd roared. I-DA-HO … VAN-DALS … I-DA-HO … VAN-DALS.
As he lingered there triumphantly, basking in a scene unique to college football, Jace didn't know what his future would hold. But for the first time in months, his illness did not define him. He was again Jace Malek, football player, readying for his first collegiate game. "I'm not even an emotional-type person," Ackerman said that night, seated a few rows up in the stands, "and I've been choked up all day."
Jace had his own cheering section for Idaho's opener: His mother and father, his 10-year-old sister, Kathryn, and his 16-year-old brother, Tate, were all in attendance. Jace spent the majority of Idaho's 45–28 loss in a wheelchair on the sideline, and he fist-bumped his teammates as they walked off the field after the game. When Jace emerged from the postgame locker room, he spotted his family gathered by edge of the bleachers. He hugged his parents and siblings, smiling broadly from ear to ear.
"I don't think the guys realize how many people around have cancer and don't have something like this to hold on to," Jace says. "Push through the hard times. Find the better times. Put all your effort into something you care about, and it helps you get through the harder times in your life."
For at least one more day, in a small town in west Idaho, Jace lived his dream. He isn't letting go.