Jackson Mathers slept in at his family’s Island Falls home Tuesday morning, fresh from leading top-ranked Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook to a quarterfinal victory at the Class D North boys basketball tournament a day before.
That the senior guard was able to grab some extra rest of his own volition rather than as a concession to the physical trauma he endured for much of his high school experience is a testament to a battle he’s finally winning far beyond the baselines of a basketball court.
After more than two years dominated by frequent episodes of often debilitating abdominal pain, the 17-year-old Mathers finally sought medical help after a particularly painful episode just before the start of the 2016-2017 basketball season.
He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory condition of the digestive tract similar to colitis that can include such symptoms as stomach aches, fatigue and weight loss.
Mathers is being treated with medication that has alleviated those symptoms and left him feeling much more alive than he has been since early in his four years as a starter for the Warriors’ basketball team.
“Playing basketball and just going out and doing things, I feel so much better,” he said this week. “I could never go out and enjoy myself before. If I went out with friends I was just thinking about how bad my stomach hurt.
“I’m basically a whole person now.”
Mathers’ good news is bad news for rival basketball teams. He accumulated many of his more than 1,400 career points while playing through the worst of his health days, but never missed a practice or a game.
“I’ll tell you, he’s one tough kid,” said Southern Aroostook coach Bill McAvoy, whose Warriors (18-1) were scheduled to face No. 4 Central Aroostook in Thursday’s 3:35 p.m. Class D North semifinal at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“He never asked for anything special. He’d just go out there, and he’d run everything we run — all the sprints, everything. And he never complained.”
Mathers first felt symptoms of what turned out to be Crohn’s disease two years ago.
“No matter what I did my stomach was killing me, so basically I assumed that’s what everybody dealt with,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to go out and do things with my friends because my stomach hurt so bad.”
Mathers researched his symptoms and thought he had colitis, a condition similar to Crohn’s disease that one of his uncles and a great aunt had suffered.
But because the stomach pain came and went periodically, Mathers was reluctant to seek medical help.
Playing sports often provided him a temporary respite from the flare-ups, allowing him to focus on something besides the pain in his stomach.
“During basketball games I could usually pull it together for an hour or however long the basketball game was,” he said. “I’d feel OK on the court, but if I went to the basket and got hit hard it would hurt.”
Mathers starred on both the soccer field and basketball court for Southern Aroostook, leading the Warriors to the 2015 regional basketball semifinals and the 2016 Class D North championship game.
He looked forward to his senior year of high school athletics with great anticipation, particularly in basketball where Southern Aroostook returned a starting lineup filled with highly motivated seniors focused on a championship conclusion to their playing careers.
For the most part, soccer season went well for Mathers, the flare-ups coming and going at what for him was a manageable rate.
“It wasn’t bad at all, actually,” he said. “The reason I wouldn’t go to the doctor is that I’d feel bad for a month and a half and then I’d get better for a couple of weeks and I’d feel way better than I had been feeling so I thought I was better.”
Finally, just before the start of basketball season, Mathers’ body made the decision to seek medical help for him.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I lost 10 pounds in about a month and a half and I was so sick for about a week that I couldn’t get off the couch.”
And as the debilitating stomach ache returned so did another symptom, considerable pain in his joints.
“They say it feels like arthritis if your Crohn’s is bad, and I definitely had that,” he said. “At one point my knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows and wrists were all bad. That week on the couch, I could barely pick up my phone it hurt so bad.
“It got so bad that I knew I had to do something because I couldn’t go to college like this. Two weeks later I was diagnosed with Crohn’s.”
The comeback trail
Mathers spent the early part of this season regaining his physical conditioning and playing through the last of his symptoms as the medication began to take effect.
“A couple of games in a row my feet were numb,” he said. “I couldn’t even feel them, maybe because of the medicine. Some days I’d wake up and be sore all over — it was usually my knees — but I haven’t noticed it for the last three weeks so the medicine must be working.”
Not feeling the pain that has coursed through his body for the last couple of years has enabled Mathers to spend tournament week focusing on basketball and leading his team.
“The other kids get fired up being around him,” McAvoy said. “When he’s going, everybody else seems to step up the pace.”
Mathers, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, scored a game-high 28 during Southern Aroostook’s quarterfinal win over Greater Houlton Christian Academy on Monday.
After two losses in the regional final in their last three years at the Cross Insurance Center, Mathers and his classmates are determined to break through that championship barrier in their final attempt.
“Since this is my last year I’ve been thinking about this completely different,” he said. “My mindset has been completely different because every game could be my last high school game. I know that’s what the other guys are thinking, too.”
Mathers plans to continue his basketball career at Thomas College in Waterville next year.
“Jackson’s one of the few kids that you’d like to have a lot more of,” McAvoy said, “and not so much for his basketball, but because as good as he is at basketball he’s even a better person.”