Jonah Howell was a force to be reckoned with on the field, and everyone knew it. The full-bearded, 16-year-old, cornerback earned the nickname “The Bearded Warrior” after two years on his high school’s junior varsity team. But when Jonah was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2019, he was terrified of losing his hair and signature look that inspired the nickname.
“He is a solid cornerback, and can take a hit from a kid twice his size, roll out of it and go right back to playing,” said Amy Howell, Jonah’s mother. “Football has been tough, there have been tears shed, but because Jonah is so determined, he has fought through it.”
No matter the mistakes Jonah made during practice, he was always ready to listen to his coach to learn more. He never quit.
Given the nickname he earned from his coach and team, Jonah didn’t want to lose his long hair or beard after his diagnosis. To help alleviate some of Jonah’s anxiety, his parents organized a shave party in January where friends, family, coaches, and teammates would come together in solidarity to shave their heads for Jonah.
“He was grinning ear to ear to see so many of his team show up,” Amy said. “He also got a Facebook account and they all took turns getting him connected to all of them, so at least he can chat while they are in school.”
Jonah and his parents were introduced to the Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation (NNCCF) while he was in the hospital. NNCCF has been able to help Jonah’s family with financial and emotional support, which included creating personalized “The Bearded Warrior” beanies for Jonah and his community of supporters. The beanies represented Jonah's personality, his school colors, and his fight against cancer. Jonah's high school principal, Kevin Carroll, even allowed students to wear the beanies in support of Jonah.
“Jonah has had much support from students and staff,” Carroll said. “When Jonah was first diagnosed over winter break, many students, teachers, administrators, and coaches went to see him in the hospital. Once we returned to school we had a “miracle minute” which raised $1,200 and I was able to deliver him the check. Since he has been home, many of us go visit him (pre-COVID-19) as he just lives down the street.”
Before Jonah’s diagnosis, he complained of a burning feeling in his stomach, and side cramps for a week. His parents, alarmed by the sudden symptoms, believed they were caused by recent practices from his off-season football team. His symptoms worsened the day after Christmas, and they rushed off to the emergency room. After bloodwork, an ultrasound, then receiving his diagnosis, Jonah had one major question, “Can I die from this?”
“I don’t even remember what the doctor’s response was because all I kept hearing was my 16-year-old asking if he is going to die,” said Amy. “These are not conversations that you prepare for as a parent.”
The most difficult part for Jonah was the isolation from his friends, classmates, and teammates. His love for football and lack of ability to play affected his spirits. Cancer compromised his immune system, and he had to distance himself from other people because of it. This included new house rules, implemented in January, that were to disinfect before and after limited visitors as well as not allowing anyone to visit who may be sick.
“I cannot go to school or see my friends. I can't play football or do other stuff, so everybody else is doing stuff to play sports like weights, and track but I can't,” said Jonah. “I can't wait to be able to get back on the field with my team and [be a] manager until I am better.”
Jonah had treatment for 28 days, in which there were many ups and downs, and is now in remission. His body has begun to heal, however, he is still recovering and will need consistent check-ups with his doctors. Jonah’s health varies day by day, but his family agrees that the good days will always outnumber the bad.
“What is happening now, is that we are doing what we can to push the limits of getting back to normal. The more normal life he can get to, the faster he will heal,” said Amy. “It is hard to sit still and wait. He feels good, and the warrior in him just wants to get right back into the game.”
Jonah is able to keep up with school work due to a program in which his school appointed a single teacher to be a liaison between all of his classes and set up his work for him. As well, Jonah received a laptop from NNCCF, which allowed him to download special software for school. One day, Jonah hopes to play football at South Dakota State University and study criminal justice. He wants to become a police officer or a game warden.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Jonah has continued to follow guidelines from his doctors and healthcare providers to stay safe and healthy. He recently celebrated turning 17-years-old and hosted a “Bday Cook-Off” Zoom meeting for friends, family, and members of the NNCCF team. Jonah virtually judged the desserts made by attendees on three criteria: difficulty, decorations, and if he would eat it.
For more information about the Northern Nevada Children's Cancer Foundation and the children we serve, visit www.nvchildrenscancer.org