In the aftermath of surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor in April, Jacob Pritchett set a goal for his recovery.
He wanted to be out of a wheelchair and walking on his own with the use of a walker at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center during the Beach Ball Classic.
With additional motivation provided by a bond with a basketball coach from Ohio, his family and his program, the 17-year-old has been doing just that this week as an ambassador for the St. Edward team.
“I love coming to Beach Ball. It’s one of my favorite things,” Jacob said. “I was really looking forward to it and I wanted to be able to be out of the wheelchair for it for sure.”
Each Beach Ball team is assigned local ambassadors, who essentially accompany the team for all of its activities during the tournament and sit at the end of the bench during games.
Jacob’s father, Stuart, the pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Swansea, became an ambassador in 2002. He and his wife, Shelley, who works for Blue Cross Blue Shield, began doing it together in 2003 as a family activity, when Jacob was 2 and his sister, Jessica, was 5.
The Pritchetts have now been assigned St. Edward and head coach Eric Flannery eight times.
“Of every team we’ve ever had St. Edward is definitely my favorite,” Jacob said. “I would have wanted to get better for me probably anyway, but then once I knew they were doing it, that was even more motivation.”
The St. Edward basketball team has been along for Jacob’s continued recovery from a distance.
Flannery learned about Jacob’s illness through Facebook posts and kept up with his progress while participating in fundraisers. The Pritchetts shot a couple videos of Jacob’s progress and sent them to Flannery, who shared them with the team.
“The community of St. Edward was praying for the family and keeping in touch with them,” Flannery said. “We’ve known not only Stuart and Shelley but Jacob since he was a little guy. You just develop that relationship when you see those people over and over again and they’re such kind and generous people.”
Considering Jacob’s ordeal, Flannery was surprised the Pritchetts were going to be ambassadors again this year. But he underestimated the amount of motivation being an ambassador for his team provided Jacob.
“They’ve been awesome,” Jacob said.
Jacob lived on-campus at the Governor’s School for Science and Math in Hartsville last year, and had been complaining of headaches. He was prescribed muscle relaxers and a strong ibuprofen for stress, and was taking that for about two weeks.
Then while taking a shower one day he bent down to get shampoo and felt excruciating pain in his head. He went through a concussion test with a physical trainer at Governer’s School, and his balance was perceivably off.
So he went to get an MRI the day before his high school spring break began, and the large brain tumor was found.
The MRI was done on March 29, the family received a call the next morning and Jacob’s surgery to remove the brain tumor was April 2 at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.
The surgeon told Shelley and Stuart he was able to remove the entire tumor but he confirmed Jacob had medulloblastoma, a cancer of the brain and spinal cord.
Shelley said the tumor had invaded Jacob’s brain stem, which was discovered during surgery, and a blood vessel that was feeding his brain stem was attached to the tumor and had to be severed, causing a stroke.
The stroke has greatly limited Jacob’s use of his left side and he’s had to learn how to walk again.
Inspired by his Beach Ball goal, Jacob has made a lot of progress in recent months.
“In the beginning I was so used to using my left side that I couldn’t even turn it when I slept. I would sleep on it and it would go numb,” he said. “And I was in the wheelchair and couldn’t do anything for myself. So now I can use the walker by myself and my left side has gotten a lot better.”
Jacob’s cancer treatment plan was laid out over 55 weeks. He had six weeks of radiation before a break, and has chemotherapy treatments schedule through May. He was scheduled to be admitted to the hospital for his next round of chemo on Thursday, but it was postponed a week so he could serve as an ambassador at the Beach Ball.
He has been through four of a scheduled nine cycles of chemo.
“Of course there are times when my spirits get down, but I think all in all through the whole thing I’ve handled it pretty well,” Jacob said.
Because he was nearly done with his junior year and had achieved all of the credits and requirements needed for graduation, Jacob earned his high school diploma early.
He wants to study law in college and has applied to South Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, Wofford, Winthrop, Florida State and Vanderbilt, and hopes to enroll in the fall. “Depending on how much progress I’ve made, I may have to push it back. But hopefully this fall,” he said.
Beach Ball week
Jacob has his own parking spot at the convention center this week. General manager Paul Edwards, who is Shelley’s uncle, set aside a spot near the back entrance of the building with an accompanying sign.
Following St. Edward’s first practice in Myrtle Beach, Flannery gathered the team around Jacob and spoke at length with a message about perseverance and the value of family love.
“When you make a trip this long to come play a basketball tournament, there are more things you’re trying to teach your guys other than just basketball,” Flannery said. “I think this is one of those life lessons that hopefully can impact even one kid from the city of Cleveland. You try to make that connection.
“. . . It’s a simple message but sometimes you need to see it in order to appreciate it.”
Flannery and his wife have four children, and the two families have spent a lot of time with each other over the eight weeks they’ve been together during the tournament over the past 14 years – the last time being in 2015 – and they keep in touch otherwise.
“Normally when they come to the tournament it’s a family thing,” Shelley said. “It’s really like their kids and our kids have grown up together.”
Some church members created “Jacob Strong” T-shirts as a fundraiser to help the family with medical expenses, and Flannery contacted the company that produced the shirts and placed a special order for his team.
The shirts say “Jacob Strong” on the front and “He is Able” on the back with a reference to the verse Ephesians 3:20.
Flannery ordered them in the Eagles’ green team color and the team has been wearing them every day as their warmup tops.
“Our kids were more than happy to wear the shirts and meet Jacob and Stuart for the first time and get to talk to him, which I think is great for my guys to see what a family is dealing with and see what great people they are and how strong this young man is,” Flannery said. “To me that’s just inspiration for other people.”