Jaedyn McKinstry’s inspiring journey from battling cancer to becoming a Division I athlete
How a knee to the groin during a high school tournament saved his life
It’s a hard push up the court for the All-Ohio Gold AAU team, and forward Jaedyn McKinstry is in attack mode with the ball on the right wing. A massive 7-footer occupies the space between McKinstry and the rim, but the fearless 16-year-old glimpsed opportunity.
Determined to put the big kid on a poster, McKinstry leaps high to attempt the royal flush.
McKinstry’s a big guy — 6-foot-5, 200 pounds — and he had just finished his sophomore year as a two-sport athlete at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio. Basketball is his first love, but he decided football would be his future after a Louisville coach pulled him out of class a week after he transferred to St. John’s midway through his freshman year. “Never saw me play, strictly based on the eye test,” McKinstry recalled. “That’s when I knew football was the route I’d take.”
But back to the dunk attempt on the 7-footer in that June 2018 AAU game.
McKinstry’s takeoff is impressive, but the dunk never has a chance after he catches a knee to the groin and crashes to the ground.
“The pain was immediate,” recalled McKinstry, now 18, who was left rocking back and forth in a fetal position on the court. “I tried to come back to play, but the pain was so intense and the swelling was so bad that I couldn’t.”
That knee to the groin knocked him out of the game.
That knee to the groin also saved his life.
McKinstry didn’t believe the injury was serious at the time, despite the swelling. “I got hit down there,” McKinstry thought. “Those things happen.”
And when those things happened to McKinstry — a physical wide receiver in football and power forward in basketball at St. John’s — he always bounced back.
That’s what McKinstry did the following week after the injury, suiting up to play in an AAU tournament in Michigan. But then he injured himself again while diving for a loose ball in the first game.
“The pain level?” McKinstry said. “Ten out of 10.”
McKinstry managed to play in three more games that weekend, earning all-tournament honors as his team won the championship. But in the weeks that followed, the pain in his groin area persisted and the swelling worsened.
McKinstry didn’t tell his mother anything other than he was a bit banged up. “How do you tell your mother that you’re swelled up down there?” McKinstry asked. “That’s embarrassing.”
Cassandra McKinstry only discovered the extent of her son’s injury when she heard a scream that pierced through the walls of their home in Fremont, Ohio. It came from her youngest son, Jaeyce, who had walked into the bathroom as McKinstry was getting dressed.
“You need to come in here,” McKinstry’s little brother yelled. “You have to see how big Jaedyn’s balls are!”
One of McKinstry’s testicles had swelled to the size of a grapefruit.
A visit that night to see a friend who was a former doctor triggered a series of hospital visits that eventually led to a surgical procedure. That procedure, expected to be a simple outpatient process, wound up taking longer than expected.
When the procedure was finally over, the doctors met with McKinstry’s mother.
“It might be cancer,” she learned.
The doctors couldn’t be sure until tissue samples from McKinstry were further tested. The results would take days.
For Cassandra McKinstry, waiting for the results was agonizing. Finally, on June 22, 2018, she received a call while in her office at work. It was the diagnosis she had dreaded. McKinstry had rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that mostly affects children and forms in soft skeletal muscle tissue. The cancer was determined to be in stage 4 based on location — paratesticular, lymph node and lung — and required surgical removal. Staggered by the gut-punch that was the stage 4 cancer diagnosis, she was ill-prepared for the uppercut that followed: She was told by the doctor that her son — tall, strong and seemingly the epitome of good health — had only a 50% chance of surviving.
“It felt,” she said of that moment, “as if someone was sucking the oxygen out of the air.” And now she had to gather herself to deliver the news to McKinstry. “How do you tell your son who looks perfectly healthy that he has cancer?”
She needed support and called her oldest son, Jarvis Jones, 24, to help break the news. They arrived at home together to find McKinstry playing Fortnite. He sensed something was wrong from their anguished looks.
“She was crying when she told me,” McKinstry said. “I was just shocked.”
That initial shock turned to anger, with McKinstry violently throwing his Xbox controller at the front door and shattering it into pieces. Then he left the house for an aimless walk around the neighborhood.
“I felt my whole life came to a standstill at that point,” he remembered. “I wondered why this was happening to me.”
When McKinstry came back to the house, he went straight to his room and closed the door. His mother went to her room, too, and for hours the family dealt with the life-altering news separately.
But in the middle of the night, McKinstry opened the door to his mom’s room, fell onto her bed and into her arms. Sobbing.
“That was heartbreaking,” McKinstry’s mom recalled. “I felt helpless because, in that moment, I couldn’t fix it.”
As the manager of homeless health care at the Mildred Bayer Clinic for the Homeless in Toledo, Cassandra McKinstry was an advocate for people seeking medical and dental services. Now, she had to be an advocate for her son.
With the doctor in Toledo laying out a 50-50 survival rate for rhabdomyosarcoma, her promise to her son was to seek out the best medical care possible. She made dozens of calls to doctors and medical facilities in various states, which eventually led her to Dr. Brian Turpin, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Turpin outlined the long road ahead.
“The treatment is 54 weeks of therapy where you’re getting chemotherapy every other week and it’s seven different drugs,” Turpin said. “Your immune system’s down, you need blood transfusions, your body’s taking a toll.
“And as soon as you recover, you get right back in the hospital getting another round,” Turpin added. “It hits people hard, and challenges the body more than any other regimen we have.”
McKinstry, upon hearing this, was undeterred.
“Those doctors told me I could make it through, but I had to be tough,” McKinstry said. “I was like, OK, I’m a tough kid.”
But as tough as McKinstry was, that first chemo session proved punishing.
“The worst,” he said. “I was in my room and if I moved, I felt I was going to throw up. If I tried to eat, I felt I’d throw up. So I just laid in bed and just didn’t move.”
That became his weekly routine: Driving three hours with his mother from Northern Ohio to Cincinnati for chemotherapy treatments, where he would often find himself recovering in bed barely able to move. They’d stay a few days — some days he was admitted, some days the two stayed in a hotel — and then they’d go home. After a few days at home, they’d drive back to Cincinnati to repeat the process.
To do that successfully for an entire year takes a village. Cassandra McKinstry’s workplace was accommodating. Her sister-in-law watched after her younger sons while she was gone. Friends in the Fremont and Toledo area held fundraisers, providing financial support and restaurant gift cards. And Alex’s Lemonade Stand, with its foundation for pediatric cancer, provided gas cards and paid for some hotel stays.
“I’m forever grateful for all the love and support,” Cassandra McKinstry said.
It allowed her to stay focused on Jaedyn, who would need her support.
Doctors warned McKinstry he’d lose weight. He dropped 40 pounds (from 200 to 160). “The smell of food, to him, was repulsive,” his mother said. “But the doctors told me that if he didn’t eat, he’d die.”
Doctors alerted him he’d lose his hair. While in bed one day, some came out in his hand. “Then I went to take a shower,” McKinstry said. “It all came out.”
What McKinstry never lost was his drive to play sports. He spent most of his recovery in Cincinnati watching his high school football highlights on his phone. McKinstry’s room at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Liberty Campus, where he often recovered from chemo, also overlooked the Lakota East High School football stadium, where the team could be seen practicing or playing. McKinstry would gaze out the window, itching to be in the mix. But knowing that itch couldn’t be scratched proved to be torturous.
“He’d have me close the curtains, and he’d either binge-watch something on Netflix or play a video game with his headphones on,” McKinstry’s mom said. “He did not want to hear the crowd, he did not want to see the lights from the game.”
He yearned to be in the game.
“They were doing something that I loved,” McKinstry said. “And I couldn’t do it.”
Nearly six months into his treatment — after more than 20 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation — McKinstry could start to see the finish line. But in December 2018, he would suffer a major setback when doctors discovered a tumor near his abdomen that wasn’t responding to treatment.
There were options for additional treatment. But treating the tumor with radiation ran the risk of hitting his bowels, which could lead to wearing a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. Another option included surgery, a risky procedure that, if unsuccessful, could leave McKinstry unable to walk. Or worse.
“They told me if something went wrong,” McKinstry said, “it could kill me.”
It was news that McKinstry, for all he had already endured, was not prepared for.
“We went through all this,” he told his mother, “and now you’re telling me this?”
The family took time to find the right pediatric surgeon, Dr. Anusua Dasgupta, who after a thorough study of McKinstry’s charts, said she’d take on the laborious procedure.
On Jan. 2, 2019, more than a dozen members of McKinstry’s family made the trek to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to see him off for surgery.
“I remember holding my mom’s hand while I was being wheeled in, until she couldn’t go anymore,” McKinstry said. “And I remember being really nervous.”
The surgery, which began in the morning, was expected to last two to three hours. It wasn’t completed until late in the afternoon. Following the lengthy wait, McKinstry’s mother expected the worst but ultimately received good news.
“The doctor told me it took so long because she took her time,” Cassandra McKinstry recalled.
The surgery was successful.
When she was escorted to see her son, she found him clutching a football.
“When I woke up, they told me I kept yelling, ‘I want a football, I want a football,’ and that’s how it wound up in my hands,” McKinstry said. “Waking up was an exciting moment for me. I was happy to be alive.”
That successful surgery meant McKinstry had made it through halftime, with a grueling second half of treatment remaining. Chemotherapy was resumed two weeks after the surgery, with the first of 23 radiation treatments beginning on Feb. 4, 2019.
But even as McKinstry underwent the now concurrent treatments of chemo and radiation, he often found time to drive to St. John’s to visit his teammates and coaches when he was back home.
“Jaedyn was one of the first kids I met when I got hired, and I was salivating because he was so big — 6-foot-5, superlean,” said St. John’s football coach Larry McDaniel. “Now he’s visiting during treatment and you could see the physical deterioration, the loss of hair, the loss of weight, a change in his skin color. He was frail, but all he would talk about was getting back to football.”
Over the course of his journey, McKinstry found inspiration in Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, who, when he was in college, returned to the Pitt football team in 2016 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma the previous year. “He had six months of chemo, and then he was back playing,” McKinstry said. “For me, seeing someone do it showed me that I could make it through.”
The last day of chemotherapy for McKinstry came in July 2019, one year after it began. McKinstry wanted to celebrate by digging into a plate of ribs. His mother, fully understanding the effect those ribs would have on her son, placed the order anyway.
“He got sick,” she said. “In that moment I said, ‘I’m seeing my baby throw up for the last time.’ ”
After McKinstry was cleaned up and given nausea medications through an IV, his mother went to her car in the parking lot and let all of her emotions out.
“I screamed so loud and I cried,” she said. “I didn’t realize my windows were down, and hospital security came over because he thought something was wrong.
“I had pent up so many emotions, and that was my time to cry,” she added. “His treatment was over. Me and my baby were going home.”
For McKinstry, the most satisfying moment at the end of treatment was the removal of the port, which, for a year, represented the entry point for the cancer-fighting chemicals that flowed through his body.
“The first question I asked when they took the port out: ‘When can I start working out?’ ” McKinstry said. “They told me it would take a week to heal.
“I knew the first place I wanted to go.”
For McKinstry to get to where he wanted to go — the football field — he first had to get medical clearance, which entailed passing a stress test that required sprinting on a treadmill with various inclines for 15 minutes.
Less than a week after the port entry spot on his chest had healed, McKinstry was back in the hospital, gasping for breath as a specialist monitored his vitals via the electrodes and wires covering his chest, arms and legs.
“It felt like my chest was going to explode,” McKinstry recalled. “I was so out of shape. I was determined to pass, but I barely got through that.”
It was enough for him to receive medical clearance. And with that out of the way, McKinstry already had the next step planned out. He didn’t call the St. John’s coaching staff asking if he could rejoin the team; he just showed up.
“I walked in the weight room one day and started working out with the guys,” he said. “No one was going to tell me I couldn’t play.”
Turpin, hearing that his patient was jumping back into the mix after a year of chemotherapy and radiation, was flabbergasted. “I usually give people a better part of the year to overcome the physical side effects of chemotherapy,” Turpin said. “What he’s been able to do is impressive.”
What McKinstry possessed in desire, however, he lacked in stamina. The chemotherapy, as the doctors warned, had withered his body to the point where McKinstry looked into the mirror and “felt I wasn’t seeing the same person.”
McKinstry, a starter before he left the team, definitely wasn’t the same player.
“A shell of himself,” McDaniel said. “He was in no condition to go out and compete at the level we demand.”
Even as McKinstry practiced, there was still a hurdle to overcome in order to play. In high school sports in Ohio, eligibility is based on a player’s last grading period. Since McKinstry missed the entire 2018-19 school year, he wasn’t present for the previous grading period. The school filed an appeal to get him eligible.
Not only was the effort to get McKinstry reinstated for the 2019-20 season successful, but athletic director Bob Ronai also achieved approval in the school’s request to have the lost year reinstated.
“The Ohio High School Athletic Association looked at everything we had, and was very gracious about giving him his last year,” Ronai said.
Upon his return to the field, McKinstry was still gaunt, frail and lacking quickness, which led to a new experience of coming off the bench. When he entered games, his mother, who also fought for his reinstatement, worried about him.
“I was afraid he would break a leg because his bone marrow was compromised and his bones were fragile,” she said. “I give the coaches credit for running plays away from him to keep him out the mix.”
But the mix is where McKinstry wanted to be, and his new role left him frustrated.
“Even though he was not where he needed to be, he was always saying, ‘Why am I not playing more?’ ” McDaniel said. “I had to sit him down in my office and show him with an illustration: This is where your body is physically, and here is where you need to be to play. Once he saw that chart, I think he understood a little bit better.”
On Nov. 1, with St. John’s winning big in the final game of the 2019 regular season, the team finally called a play for McKinstry to run a fade route. Lined up on the far left of the field, McKinstry leaped high in the back of the end zone to grab a 15-yard pass just over the fingertips of a Lima Senior High School defender.
“I ran to the sidelines and hugged my coaches and my brother,” said McKinstry, whose 16-year-old brother, Jabari, also plays on the football team. “That was a special moment.”
From football, McKinstry pivoted straight to basketball and, with increased weight, began to show signs of his former self. Even though his basketball role was also off the bench (he had been a starter the season before he was diagnosed), he was a key contributor to the 2019-20 team that reached the district finals in March.
“There was a moment in our district semifinal game where he gave us a huge lift off the bench,” said St. John’s basketball coach Mike Schoen. “It was the first time where you could sense that he was starting to turn the dial and feel like himself again.”
The 2019-20 basketball season ended a week after sports nationwide went dark. With games canceled and schools entering an era of virtual learning, McKinstry took the extra time at home to visit a friend nearby who had weights in the family garage. “Lifted every day, sometimes two, three times a day,” McKinstry said. “I was determined to get back physically for my last year.”
McKinstry, by the time football practice began in late summer for his reinstated 2020 season, stepped on the scales at a chiseled 215 pounds, a weight gain of more than 50 pounds in just over a year.
McKinstry was back in the football starting lineup for a shortened six-game senior season, recording 20 catches for 314 yards (15.7 yards per catch) and looking more and more like the player who once made Division I coaches do a double take. But McKinstry was caught in a quandary. Not only had he missed what amounted to two full years of football, but he returned to form in the midst of a pandemic, which meant fewer chances for teams to see him play. With college athletes receiving an extra year of eligibility, schools also had fewer scholarships to offer.
“Without his losing a year and without the pandemic,” McDaniel said, “there’s no doubt in my mind — with his size and ability — he would have received a scholarship at a Power 5 school.”
What was available for McKinstry was an offer to attend Bowling Green to play tight end as a preferred walk-on. He committed to Bowling Green in December.
I just want to thank god first and everyone that had helped me through the process. With that being said blessed to say I am 100% committed to Bowling Green State University @CoachLoefflerBG @CoachHedden #AyZiggy pic.twitter.com/IK68tkn6Go
— datboyjaedyn (@JaedynMckinstry) December 8, 2020
It’s there that McKinstry will achieve his dream of playing Division I football in the Mid-American Conference, with the hopes of earning a full scholarship in the future.
“I’m just so proud to see him back on the field, playing well and doing something that he really loves,” said his older brother, Jarvis Jones. “He’s such an inspiration. Whenever life is hard for me, I always think about what he’s been through and how hard he pushed to get back, and that’s just great motivation.”
McKinstry’s final basketball season also started in early December. And while McKinstry wasn’t able to put that 7-footer in the 2018 AAU game on a poster, he recently managed to bag a twofer.
— Overtime (@overtime) December 28, 2020
The fact that McKinstry is able to deliver that type of viral moment following a cancer diagnosis that gave him a 50-50 chance to live has inspired others who shared in his journey.
“When I met Jaedyn, he told me he was up for the challenge, and he meant it,” Turpin said. “Hearing what he’s been doing blew my mind.”
For all the hard work that McKinstry put in to get back, it’s also not lost on him that his mother is the one who helped him get to the finish line.
“I could write a book about the support my mom gave me,” he said. “When I wasn’t feeling good, she got the medicine to make me feel better. She slept in a chair in the hospital for days while I was getting chemo treatment. She did everything for me, and I’ll always appreciate that.”
He’s also thankful for that knee to the groin.
“If that dude didn’t knee me in the groin, we would have never found out about the cancer,” McKinstry said. “I would have gone on with my life and, later on down the road, it would have been a little too late.”
McKinstry isn’t taking his new journey for granted.
“I’ve been in a situation where I felt everything could be taken away from me with a snap of a finger,” he said. “For what I’ve been through, I now get a chance to play Division I football. That’s truly a blessing.”