There are events in ones life which leave an indelible impact. For those moments in time we look back and vividly recall where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with. We experience the same emotions all over again. Collectively as a nation, depending upon your age, such events would be the attacks of 9/11, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and the assassination of President Kennedy.
Individually, those life altering moments could include the passing of a family member, a divorce, or the loss of a job. These defining memories can include times of tremendous euphoria. I’m sure everyone who is married, regardless of how long, can recall nearly every detail from that day the knot was tied. For many New Englanders, we remember the final out of the 2004 World Series. The Boston Red Sox exorcised the demons of that dreaded curse. Maybe the local high school sports team won the state championship for the first time in many years. We picture the scenes, breathe the smells, and relive the feelings.
Over the past year, I’ve experienced these type of life defining moments. So has everyone who’s called Jonny Bowman a son, brother, teammate, classmate, and friend. Jonny’s time on this Earth was short, sixteen years short, however the impact he made and the lessons he taught in those sixteen years will never be forgotten.
I only knew Jonny for a year and a half, primarily through his participation in the John Bapst basketball program. I vividly recall watching him play those first few games of his sophomore season. He was full speed all the time. Sometimes that was a good thing, other times not so much. That was Jonny, though, and that’s the way he lived his life, full speed ahead. He had a passion for life and jumped in with full commitment with whatever he was involved in.
Jonny was an honor student, played saxophone in the school band, and was actively involved in his Boy Scout troop. Athletically, he played soccer, basketball, golf, and was probably most passionate about lacrosse. He was a key member of the upstart Nokomis-MCI lacrosse program.
The other characteristic which stood out during that sophomore season was how positive he was. He had a smile which radiated throughout the entire program. It was a smile he wore often, in good times and bad. To say it was a rebuilding season for the Crusaders is a bit of an understatement. The team of mostly freshmen and sophomores went 0-18, losing every game but one by double digits. There were games in which the team amassed more turnovers than points. Yet, through it all, Jonny stayed positive. In the brief time I knew Jonny, I can never recall one negative comment that flowed from his mouth.
Following the season my next recollection of Jonny came in June. Scrolling through Facebook one day, there he was with that big smile pictured with his father Kevin. The two of them had completed the Trek Across Maine, an arduous bicycle ride of nearly 200 miles in three days. The event is an annual fundraiser for the American Lung Association. The final day was spent covering sixty miles in the pouring rain and cold. There was no doubt, however, they would finish the journey in Belfast. Wet and cold but there was that signature smile. That picture is implanted firmly in my mind because it’s the final time I would ever see a healthy Jonny Bowman. It was not, however, the last time I would ever see him smile.
During the summer months I lose track of many of our basketball players. July and early August consists of two things for me: work and baseball. On July 28th, while once again scrolling through Facebook I saw Jonny again. There was that big smile of his. He had a reassuring smile, a smile which said everything is going to be okay, even when things may not be. He was in a wheelchair at Boston Children’s Hospital. Pictured with him was the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. How can this be and what is going on, I thought to myself. Here is this vibrant young man who just a few weeks ago completed a bicycle journey across Maine.
I needed answers so I immediately reached out to Jonny. It was a word I shuttered to hear: cancer. Jonny had a rare form of cancer which impacted his lungs and bone marrow. He was as matter of fact about his situation as could be. It was going to be a long road ahead of him. Chemotherapy, radiation, and hospital stays for the next year. While he stayed strong, my heart broke.
The next season came around and there was Jonny. We returned the bulk of the team the winless season the year prior. We opened the season with Caribou at the Cross Center, a team we had lost to by about fifty a year ago in the county. As the team was headed to victory in the final seconds, I remember head coach Rick Sinclair turned to Jonny on the bench and said to him “This one’s for you.” While the players on the court celebrated, I’m not sure anyone in the building had a bigger smile on their face than Jonny did that day.
While Jonny didn’t see a second of time of the court, he was as much a part of our program as anyone. When he attended the games, he always made a point to come over to the scorer’s table to chat with me. While he was going through so much, he always was concerned with how I was doing.
As the season ended it was time for school vacation week. Many of our players would attend the annual high school basketball tournament at the Cross Insurance Center. Some would vacation with family to warmer climates or take off to the mountains for some winter activities. Jonny’s week would be spent at Eastern Maine Medical Center undergoing treatment. One morning that week, I accompanied one of Jonny’s best friends, Cody Lally, to spend some time by his bedside. This was supposed to have been one of Jonny’s final hospitalizations as the remainder of his treatment was to have occurred on an outpatient basis.
In our conversation with him and his mother Susan, we talked of what the future might hold. Despite hardly being able to attend school for an entire year, he was planning to graduate from John Bapst with his class, the class of 2017. He was going to college and accomplish great things. As avid college basketball fans, we spoke about my trip to the 2015 NCAA East Regional in Syracuse. I vowed to take him with me to experience March Madness in person some day.
We remained in touch for months since that day. Jonny was going to be fine so our conversations took on a more frivolous tone. We both watched in amazement as Villanova knocked off North Carolina to win the NCAA basketball championship, one of the greatest title games ever played.
June 18th, 2016 is a day I’ll never forget. On a warm, sunny day at Mansfield Stadium I’m preparing to do the public address announcing for an 11 AM state championship game between Old Town and Freeport. My cell phone was in the left pocket of my shorts. Old Town coach Brad Goody hands me the lineup card at 9:45 when my phone dings. It’s was a message from John Bapst athletic director, Rick Sinclair. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard but Jonny Bowman passed away this morning.”
Focusing on my game prep, initially I thought I had misread the text. This couldn’t be, I thought. Jonny had fought so hard and the prognosis of his recovery, although long and arduous, was promising. When I reread the message, it finally had sunk in, Jonny was no longer with us. I felt a stunning numbness going all through my body. Coach Goody asked me if I was okay. With coach and some friends by my side that morning, I couldn’t get the words out and started sobbing. How could this happen to such a beautiful person, who was so full of life? After several minutes, I could almost hear Jonny say to me, “Dude, pull yourself together, you’ve got a job to do!”
Attending his funeral was a bittersweet experience. Bitter in the sense that on this side of heaven we will never experience the warm glow of his beautiful smile. We’ll never hear his laugh or his words of encouragement. As horrific as burying a sixteen year old young man is, the experience in a sense was sweet. Jonny is in heaven today, singing and dancing with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. No longer is Jonny in pain, a pain most of us have no concept of. In fact he’ll never even have to deal with the discomfort of a common cold. We can rejoice in the fact Jonny will live forever in perfect peace.
Tragedy has a way of putting life in perspective. We often say that yet months or years later we often go back to living the way we always did. I can honestly say, Jonny Bowman has impacted my life in a way few others have. The nearly two months since his passing has brought renewed clarity into my life. He has reminded me how precious and how fleeting life can be. He has caused me to examine what is really important in life. I’ve discovered a new found passion for my faith, an urgency that I have not experienced in a long time. It’s not that I don’t care about life’s peripherals but my priorities are much clearer. The collective faith Jonny, his family, and I share is really simple: It’s about knowing Christ and making Him known.
I learned that it’s okay to have your emotions stirred, even moved to tears. Jonny reminded me what true courage and strength was in the midst of adversity. He remained strong until the end, even though his body was weakened. Jonny was one of the most inspirational, beautiful, and courageous people I have ever met.
While Jonny is rejoicing in heaven, my heart breaks for those he has left behind here on Earth. I think of his wonderful parents, Kevin and Susan, and his sister Abby. I think of all of his friends. John Bapst Head of School, Mel MacKay, said it best at his celebration of life, “If you came in contact with Jonny Bowman, you were going to be his friend. He didn’t give you a choice.”
Jonny, so many of us are honored to call you friend. You taught us so many wonderful lessons in your time on Earth. Thank you so much for the beautiful legacy you left us. I love you and miss you.