By Dave Beyer
As a starting pitcher for Mercer University’s baseball team, senior Justice French is accustomed to delivering the ball to opposing batters. In mid-July of 2010, however, the native of Suwanee, Ga., had a curve ball tossed at him.
It came in the form of being diagnosed with melanoma, the most deadly and aggressive form of skin cancer. Life had thrown this seemingly healthy, then 20-year-old, student-athlete the ultimate brush-back pitch.
To fully understand the magnitude of what French experienced – as well as to appreciate the incredible rebound he has made from the disease in terms of on-field performance in 2011 – one needs to rewind to nearly seven years earlier during his sophomore year in high school. At that time, French already knew more about melanoma than he probably wanted and more than anyone that age should have to absorb.
Jarrett Boston was a promising four-sport athlete at Collins Hill High School, as well as a teammate and best friend to French. The classmates played basketball (coached by Jarrett’s father Greg) and baseball together. Even their names, when said together, sounded like sports marquee material: “Jarrett Boston and Justice French.”
During their second year at Collins High in 2003, Boston himself had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma, which at first appeared to have been detected in time.
Over the course of the next three years, however, Boston dealt with reoccurrences of the disease. In February 2006, the outstanding student and athlete succumbed to complications brought about by the melanoma.
French was hit hard by the loss and to this day has Boston’s initials next to a cross on his truck, as well as on the brim of his own baseball cap. All French could do was stand by his friend’s side, with no way of knowing that the trials and tribulations that Boston had endured would be his own experience within a few years. That lesson may well be Boston’s greatest gift to French.
“Dr. (Matthew) Reschly (the family’s dermatologist) told me the odds were incomprehensible,” Justice’s mother, Elaine French Rago, said of the circumstances.
“The statistics for this situation − two best friends who were teammates at the same high school and the same age, with the same disease on the same part of the body − don't even exist. The odds were like a person getting struck by lightning twice while standing in the exact same spot. The parents in our community began to question ‘could it be in the water?’ We were shocked. ”
The one aspect that helps everything make sense to both French and his mother is their firm belief that God was in control of the situation. Beginning with the lessons learned from Boston’s circumstances, both know there was some divine intervention.
“God got me through the whole thing, and I believe he has a bigger plan for me,” French recounts of his battle. “The doctors didn’t beat around the bush. When they tell you things like ‘you could die from this,’ it makes you think.
“I always felt like I was put here for a reason. I’d like to make a difference in people’s lives. (The cancer) was a thing I had to go through to grow as a person and be able to help people. I do my best to be a good Christian man. I want people to look at me and know I do things the right way. That’s important to me.”
For his mother, the surrealistic time was a reminder to draw on the strong faith she herself had always clung to.
“As a parent, I was numb at first,” Elaine explained.
“But I did have to completely accept that if God gave His one and only Son so that whomever believes in Him, will not perish but have everlasting life, then - who am I to think my sweet boy would be any different?
The experience tested her faith.
“I’ve learned knowing scripture and believing in God, is easy. Living your faith – when it’s all you have – is the tough part.
“Those were the darkest days of my life.”
The first inkling of trouble for French resulted from a simple haircut. Just a few days before pitching in Mercer’s 2010 NCAA Division I Atlanta Regional game versus Alabama, French went to get his customary “buzz” haircut. However, while getting the close-cut coif, the stylist “nicked” French and told him he was bleeding from the spot on the top of his skull. French brushed it off because he did not want to make the stylist feel any worse.
After completing the season with Mercer, French went to Duluth, Minn., to play summer baseball in the Northwoods League…or so he thought. Within a few days of his arrival at his host home in Duluth, French began to feel uneasy about the less-than-sanitary living conditions.
“It was just not a good situation,” French recounted.
Within a few days, French was back home in Georgia.
One day, while French was lying on the couch in the family room watching a movie, Elaine noticed a black, abnormal spot on the top of her only son’s head. “My first thought was that it was a tick from Duluth,” she remembers.
Closer examination revealed that it was not a tick, but rather some sort of growth, which set off an alarm in Elaine’s mind. Within two days, Dr. Reschly performed an emergency biopsy. Three days later, they received the report informing them that French indeed had a malignant melanoma.
“When my mom was on the phone getting the test results, I could see something was wrong,” French said.
“She began shaking like she was having spasms. My mom is my ‘angel,’ and I’ve got to take care of her.
“Within 10 minutes all the family was there. It was a battle we all faced together.”
“It was a miracle how things went,” said Elaine of the timing. “The doctor said that if Justice had stayed in Duluth and played the full two months of the season, he probably wouldn’t be alive right now because the melanoma was metastasizing so quickly. A haircut and lousy living conditions literally helped save his life!”
French and his family meticulously planned how to proceed. Armed with the knowledge from what Boston had gone through years earlier, French was steered toward a more aggressive course of action from the outset. On July 16, French entered the Winship Cancer Institute at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital to remove any remainder of the melanoma and perform what is called a sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy to check for a spread of the cancer.
Ironically, the last time French and his family had been to Emory was to say their goodbyes to Boston.
The SLN procedure began with six injections of a blue dye and radioactive tracer directly into the site of the melanoma so the surgeon, Dr. Keith A. Delman, could follow it to the lymph nodes (located at the base of the neck on each side). The family decided that any lymph node showing even the smallest amount of tracer material would be removed for biopsy (a total of nine lymph nodes in all). Additionally, a four-inch square chunk of French’s scalp was removed during the five-hour procedure. The surgeon took special precautions to not damage his heavily-muscled neck, which could have affected his baseball career.
French left Emory with 16 staples in his skull, having gone through some extreme plastic surgery to repair the melanoma site, wearing a full cast on his head and with four large incisions on either side of his neck and under each ear. Three weeks later, French celebrated his 21st birthday with all of his “battle scars” still intact. Late in August, French, sporting a bandana over his head cast, delivered the invocation at Mercer’s opening dinner for student-athletes and athletics staff.
French and his father, Daniel, have some fun on Justice’s 21st birthday, shortly after Justice was pronounced cancer-free.
French’s participation was very moving for those on hand who knew what he was going through − and drew some quizzical looks from those who did not.
“People were looking at me (wearing the bandana at this formal event),” French explained. “But that’s OK. I’ve been through hell and back. I remember thinking: I can wear a bandana when you guys have ties on.”
“It was really an emotional time,” Mercer head baseball coach Craig Gibson said of the roller coaster ride with French’s illness. “He pitches in the regionals and then, two weeks later, we find out he has cancer. He went from pitching at the highest of highs to fighting for his life.
“Seeing him deliver the invocation was a reminder that the most important ‘game’ is the everyday ‘game of life’ for him.”
Gibson was not about to hurry along French during the fall portion of the 2010-11 season. The Mercer coaching staff decided to let him progress at his own pace as a fourth-year player with the Bears’ team. “We had no timetable on him,” Gibson said. “We didn’t know how it would go.”
Gibson noticed a change in French’s attitude toward baseball after the surgery, as did French himself.
“(Justice) is more responsible,” Gibson said. “He’s more ‘mature’ about how he approaches baseball; he’s more professional.”
“I think I work a lot harder,” French added about the way he views the game he loves. “Those 10 a.m. Saturday runs are more fun now. I’m 21 years old and I could have died already. That’s a pretty life-changing thing.
“Baseball is just a game. It’s a part of life. It’s what happens after baseball that really matters.”
French has been blessed with a career year for Mercer in 2011. Entering the season, French had a career record of 6-10 with a 6.47 earned run average. His strikeout-to-walks ratio was barely better than even at 89-to-76. Since dealing with his off-season illness, French’s senior-year numbers have been eye-popping.
In Mercer’s 54-game regular season, French had a 5-2 record and an ERA of 3.42. He leads the team with 73.2 innings pitched. Perhaps most impressive is that his strikeout-to-walks ratio has improved to better than 3-to-1, with 54 strikeouts to just 17 walks. He also was the starting pitcher when Mercer knocked off then No. 6-ranked Georgia Tech on March 29.
Like virtually any player who steps on the diamond, French would like nothing more than to be drafted and parlay his baseball skills at the professional level someday. But unlike most others, he is privy to a unique perspective on life.
“I don’t want having cancer to define me,” French explained. “If it’s going to make a difference so I can relate to people, then that’s a huge part of my life. As I grow older, I want to share my experience with people. Having had cancer helps shape me, but it does not define me.
“What I want to tell others is you’ve got to keep the faith. If you can put away the negatives and have a positive outlook on life in general – and have a faith bigger than yourself and a bigger purpose – then that is huge for anyone going through tough times.”
French graduated from Mercer in May with a double major in psychology and media studies.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that there are 68,000 new cases of skin cancer each year, resulting in 8,700 deaths. Although cancer free after his surgery, quarterly skin checks, twice-yearly complete body scans, taking precautions and a determined outlook are a part of French’s life now. His firm faith in God binds these all together in his life.
And that is why Justice has prevailed.
Dave Beyer is the sports information director at Mercer University.