KENNETT SQUARE >> Two days before Kennett High School’s Track & Field team’s biggest match of the season, one of their standout athletes, John Paul Dean, was in A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children, being treated for Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Dean, 18, a Kennett senior, had just undergone grueling chemotherapy treatments that caused him to lose all of his hair. He was weak and fatigued. The cancer had found its way into his body. According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate for Stage 4 patients is 65 percent.
But Dean knew that his team needed him, because if they defeated Unionville and Oxford, they would win their first ChesMont League American Division championship in 25 years.
“The team needed me and I just couldn’t imagine not being there for them,” he said. “I just could not let them down. It’s strange, because I have cancer, and no one thought I would be there at all.”
Even his doctors at A.I. DuPont urged him to get rest and not put a strain on his body.
But Dean showed up for the Monday, April 18 practice, and did not look well at all, said John Ramagano, Kennett High Track & Field head coach.
“He asked me to enter him in the meet,” Ramagano said. “So on (Tuesday) I entered him in the long jump and triple jump.”
Kennett needed an incredible performance from Dean, because Chris Castaneda pulled a hamstring just 10 meters from the finish line in the 100-meter relay, giving the advantage to Unionville.
Dean then goes to the long jump and jumps 21 feet, 2 inches, just one-tenth of an inch off his all-time best. Then at the triple jump, he jumps 40 feet and wins it big.
“It’s a fairy tale story,” Ramagano said. “I think it was internal will. I think it was due to the team coming together with a strong and determined young athlete, and it was a rallying point for us.”
Because of Dean’s performance, Kennett won the championship.
“I’m not sure we would have won the championship if not for John Paul,” Ramagano said.
HOW IT STARTED
Earlier this year, Dean developed a nagging cough. In January, Ramagano said he “shut him down” after Dean struggled in practice. He was always a top performer, having run for Kennett Middle School for two years, and is in his fourth year at Kennett High.
“At the time, I thought it was fatigue, because there were flu-like symptoms going around then,” Ramagano said.
During the first week of March, the start of the PIAA outdoor track season, Dean struggled out of the gate. The cough persisted.
“I told him something isn’t right with him, and he should get some things looked at,” Ramagano said.
On March 10, Dean relented and went to his doctor. He was later admitted to A.I. DuPont Hospital.
After a battery of tests and scans, doctors determined Dean was suffering from advanced cancer.
“Our team was pretty devastated when we heard,” Ramagano said. “He has been a captain this whole season and has been a fixture here from a track and field perspective for six years. This was devastating for his family, and his extended family.”
After his first chemotherapy treatment, doctors said he was in too poor of a condition to compete in anything, let alone the first meet of the season. Ramagano said when the team — all 135 members of Kennett High Track & Field — learned of it, some cried on the bus. But the season had to continue, and the team wanted to salute John Paul Dean in a special way.
Thanks to a local vendor, the Kennett Team took a page from the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” basketball team, and got shirts with the words “The Dean Team” on the front, and a slogan on the back stating that losing isn’t an option. The Kennett team used body markers to draw purple ribbons on their arms, because PIAA rules prohibit the wearing of ribbons.
At the second meet, the boys rallied behind him and defeated Great Valley. They carried that momentum over to later defeat Sun Valley and Octorara.
At the West Chester Rustin meet, emotions ran high when the Rustin team put together a huge poster board with the words “We are all behind you, John Paul.” It was signed by every member of the West Chester Rustin track and field team. At that meet, Dean competed against the advice of his doctors, and took first place in the long jump, and Kennett defeated Rustin, 77-73. Jumpers who helped secure the victory also included Xavier Feliciano, Ryan Eberle, Ryan Boyle, and Stanton Jones. Throwers included Al Sheehan, Eberle, Neil Erickson, Charlie Stinson, Tyler LaCasta and Zach Crowl. Runners, in addition to Castaneda inlcuded Jasper Seay, Nick Brison, James Tulley, Josh Ramagano and Austin Maxwell.
At the final meet, Ramagano said the team wasn’t expecting Dean to compete.
“He just got a heavy dose of chemo and was sick all weekend,” Ramagano said. “But he fought against all the odds.”
Dean said it’s not his nature to quit. He said he will beat the cancer. He is going ahead with his graduation at Kennett in a few weeks, then he will attend college at a school in Florida, where he plans to be a commercial airline pilot. He said he plans to run track all four years in college.
“I had to be here for the team,” Dean said. “It was a team effort all the way around, especially when Chris went down.”
His mother, Sharon, said her son is a competitor and will win the battle.
“We are jus so thankful so many people are praying for him,” she said. “We feel positive about the outcome. He will continue to get his chemo every three weeks, and he plans to go to (college) in the fall. He is a true leader. He leads by example.”