Glenbard West's Zydlo inspires coaches, teammates in his return from cancer
Jimmy Zydlo, from day one, said when he beat cancer, he was playing football again. His teammates pledged that when he did, he'd score a touchdown.
In a year marked by social distancing and uncertainty, the Glenbard West senior lived it two-fold. It did not break his resolve, or spirit.
But nobody, not even Zydlo, could have predicted that in the first quarter last Friday, less than nine months since being diagnosed with Stage 3A Hodgkin lymphoma, he'd be running in the Hilltoppers' first touchdown of the spring season.
Teammate Jalen Moore intentionally ran out of bounds after a long run at the 1-yard line.
Zydlo took it from there.
"It was a complete surprise to me. He told me to get in there, and go for the touchdown," Zydlo said. "It was pretty emotional when it happened. I had so much support from my teammates through this whole thing. To cross the goal line, in this crazy year, it meant so much."
Zydlo is proof that strength goes way beyond bench presses or squats. In a year apart, the connection with his teammates kept Zydlo moving forward.
The community of the "Hitters" program was something Zydlo gravitated to when he first came to Glenbard West, the first time he played tackle football. He played flag football growing up, and basketball and baseball, where he plays center field for the high school team.
It was in May of last year that Zydlo felt a lump in his neck. He didn't think too much of it, but told his mom Marilyn, and they got it checked out. A month later, June 12, the cancer diagnosis came back.
"It was really out of left field, no symptoms except for the lump," Marilyn said.
Zydlo had his first of 12 rounds of chemotherapy in July at Rush University Medical Center. Stuck at home because of the pandemic, he would go in to the hospital every two weeks for eight hours of treatment. Zydlo would come home and be sick for the next half-week, unable to eat or drink much.
From the start, though, a return to football was always a part of the conversation.
Marilyn, never a scared football mom before, struggles to see him now, covered in bruises from football. But she would not stand in the way of his resolve.
"Part of me wanted to say I don't know if you can do that, but he had said if he beat cancer he would play. How do I tell him he can't?" Marilyn said. "He's very motivated, a high-achieving student. I told him it doesn't matter if you get any playing time, or score any touchdowns. We never thought he would play another football game. It boggles my mind. [Glenbard West] coach [Chad] Hetlet, and his teammates, have been by his side every step of the way."
Glenbard West's football and baseball programs came together for a T-shirt fundraiser for Zydlo. On days he'd go to Chicago for chemotherapy they'd wear the shirts and send pictures of support.
Teammates and coaches continually sent inspirational messages to a kid that never seems to stop smiling.
"It was overwhelming how much people kept trying to keep that smile on his face," Marilyn said. "Coach Hetlet would send these messages at the most appropriate times. We got meals delivered. They treated us like family through this. We always felt connected, even though we weren't.
With a weakened immune system, Zydlo has been in fully remote learning the whole school year. While his teammates worked through fall contact days, waiting for a season that nobody was certain about, Zydlo showed up to get his running in.
Hetlet said he came to camp a month ago, running sprints, like he never missed a beat.
"We're all going through this bad deal with COVID, we can't have this, we can't have that. Here's this kid, who is literally battling for his life through the process, he would show up for contact days and he never showed weakness," Hetlet said. "He was always positive and upbeat from the get-go. To me, it's mind-blowing. He said 'coach I'm going to be out there on that field.'"
Zydlo's last treatment of chemotherapy, December 7, teammates lined his street at 5 a.m. to send him off. While his teammates watched on Zoom, Zydlo rang a bell at the hospital after his last treatment, symbolic of his last round of chemotherapy -- just like Zydlo and Glenbard West ring the bell by Duchon Field after every victory.
One month later, on January 18, Zydlo found out the cancer was in remission, the same week that the state gave spring football the green light.
"It was like a sign," Marilyn said.
Doctors told Zydlo that he had to beat cancer first, but they'd do what they could to get him back on the field. Normally, they prefer to wait six months to take the cancer port out, but they told Zydlo that as long as he was in remission they'd allow it to happen. The first medical date to have the port taken out was February 8.
Less than a month later, Zydlo was in pads.
Last Friday, Zydlo walked to midfield for the pregame coin flip, before his touchdown that Glenbard West teammates talked about since last summer.
When the live stream wasn't working, Glenbard West's athletic trainer texted Marilyn that Jimmy had scored a touchdown. She thought they were joking, but later was told of the emotional moment -- Jimmy crying, coaches crying, teammates screaming support.
"It's been hard for me, but I couldn't be more proud of him, and I'm so grateful for his teammates," Marilyn said. "They have lifted him up."
Hetlet said he did the same for the rest of his team.
Zydlo isn't out of the woods, yet. He goes back for his first check-up April 19, and has to go back every three months for two years. He's already come far, and hopes to play baseball this spring before going on to Wisconsin or Marquette to study engineering.
"Some things were just meant to be," Hetlet said. "If we had a fall season, Jimmy was not going to be able to play. He gave our boys strength when they needed him. Just to see him back out there, nothing tops that."