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Bucs help Plant High’s Jayden Spencer gang tackle cancer

The rising junior is hopeful of playing basketball for the Panthers next season.
Plant High 16-year-old junior Jayden Spencer (No. 1 jersey) shaves the head of Bucs vice-president of player personnel John Spytek during the team's "Cut and Color for a Cure" fundraiser June 8 at AdventHealth Training Center. Quarterback Kyle Trask (right) got his head shaved and colored at the event, which raised $117,000 for the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. JOEY KNIGHT | Times
Plant High 16-year-old junior Jayden Spencer (No. 1 jersey) shaves the head of Bucs vice-president of player personnel John Spytek during the team's "Cut and Color for a Cure" fundraiser June 8 at AdventHealth Training Center. Quarterback Kyle Trask (right) got his head shaved and colored at the event, which raised $117,000 for the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. JOEY KNIGHT | Times [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]
Published Jun. 14

TAMPA — On a bright, bittersweet June afternoon, Jayden Spencer arrived at Bucs headquarters as a guest of honor at a gathering for which no one clamors for an invitation.

Only three months before, at the hospital only a couple of Tom Brady spirals from where he stood, his life had been turned on its head. A succession of tests indicated Jayden’s relentless cough was cancer. The lanky Plant High basketball player with the curly brown bangs was scheduled for a half-dozen rounds of chemotherapy, each requiring a six-day hospitalization.

“It’s a 24-hour treatment,” said his mom, Sherita. “He never comes unhooked.”

Which led Jayden and Sherita to this reprieve of sorts, inside the AdventHealth Training Center. Bucs cheerleaders greeted them as they entered the vast lobby. Jayden found himself among a handful of teens and prepubescents, all bedecked in red No. 1 team jerseys.

Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford offered his card and invited Jayden and his mom back when training camp starts July 27. Soon, a few Bucs players trickled in from the facility’s inner sanctum, willing participants in this “Cut and Color For a Cure” event held in partnership with the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

In minutes, Jayden would be among those shaving heads and/or applying garish hair coloring to some of the area’s most prominent pates. But the real incentive for his arrival was the off chance of meeting his favorite player, inside linebacker Devin White.

“I just like the way he plays,” Jayden said. “At the games on third down, he’s always on the Jumbotron getting the crowd hyped, and I just find that really cool.”

Jayden is a 6-foot, 16-year-old testament to cancer’s random, ruthless nature. Before being diagnosed with large B-cell lymphoma, he rarely needed a sick day.

“This is probably one of the healthiest kids I know,” said Sherita, a single parent. “Never catches a cold, zero.”

Just before his diagnosis, he had helped lead the Plant junior varsity to a 21-4 record as a sophomore small forward. Varsity coach Joe Willis described him as a “tremendous leader” who could have started every game had the JV team not been so darned deep.

“He’s very respectful, but he’s also very popular,” Willis said.

“He gets along with everybody, whether it’s a kid that’s sometimes more of a type guy that’s in trouble at school, or also the kids that are (advanced-placement) and honor students. He just seems to be the nice bridge between all walks of life in our school and our basketball program, all those things.”

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He was practicing with the varsity in February — after the JV season’s conclusion — when he began experiencing chest pains. That first day, Jayden made it through the practice.

“But then I got home, and the next practice I couldn’t play through it,” he said.

Sherita first took him to urgent care, where the diagnosis — a simple cough — didn’t sit well with her. An ensuing visit to St. Joseph’s Hospital resulted in X-rays, CT scans, an MRI and ultimately the grim news that Jayden was dealing with the most common form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the United States. His treatment began March 9.

“I had to be there for six days at a time,” said Jayden, whose weight dropped from 145 pounds to near 130.

“Sometimes it gets really boring in there. Sometimes, like, mentally you’ve just got to push through it, being there for a long time. That’s probably the lowest point, just having to stay there for a while.”

Plant High rising senior Noah Fishman applies red hair spray to Tom Brady during the "Cut and Color For a Cure."
Plant High rising senior Noah Fishman applies red hair spray to Tom Brady during the "Cut and Color For a Cure." [ Photo courtesy of Jeff Fishman ]

Fortunately, he found a kindred spirit in Panthers upperclassman Noah Fishman, a fellow participant in this pediatric cancer fundraiser hosted by the Bucs. A 5-foot-11 rising senior spark plug who tied for the team lead in rebounds last season, Fishman was diagnosed as a toddler with a “dumbbell tumor” that originated on his adrenal gland and ultimately breached his spine.

Fourteen weeks of chemotherapy and a surgery were needed, but Fishman has shown no evidence of the disease in more than a decade. “He’s been tremendous for us,” Willis said.

As Jayden shaved the head of Bucs vice president of player personnel John Spytek, Fishman struck grooming gold when Tom Brady took a nearby seat and invited him to get creative with the red-colored hair spray. For roughly a half-hour, the scene repeated itself as various Bucs players and staffers took turns subjecting their manes to the whims of the cancer warriors.

Alas, White wasn’t among the shaven throng. Within moments, the guests were escorted into a large theater-style room, where a now-bald Ford lauded their courage and National Pediatric Cancer Foundation CEO David Frazer insisted all $117,000 raised from the day’s event would go to research. After a large group photo on the stage, the gathering was adjourned.

As the group dispersed, Sherita said her son is set for only one more chemo round, after which an MRI scan will show whether the cancer has been eradicated. She and Jayden already have made it clear to Willis that he’ll play for the Panthers his junior season.

“Our arms are wide open, ready for him to come back,” Willis said.

As the two made their way from the stage to the exits, a brawny figure with a backpack approached them. Jayden’s eyes widened.

Plant High junior Jayden Spencer, battling large B-cell lymphoma, met his favorite Bucs player, Devin White, during the "Cut and Color For a Cure."
Plant High junior Jayden Spencer, battling large B-cell lymphoma, met his favorite Bucs player, Devin White, during the "Cut and Color For a Cure." [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

And whatever remained of his lymphoma suddenly had a linebacker converging on it. After posing for selfies, Jayden’s favorite player had a message.

“Stay positive,” White told him. “There’s always trials and tribulations, but the tough people make it look easy. Tough people make it look easy.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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