Here's what FHSU meant to me:
You all do my family and I much honor with everything that has been done back here for Jon. I thought I’d use this post as an opportunity to let you all in a little more on the man that was Jonny May. When Jon realized what a celebrity his blog and NDNation made him he balked a bit when it came keeping up his blog, unsure of his new role. Though he came to accept it after a fashion, I noticed his blog entries grew less and less personal, turning into updates rather than expressive entries, and it saddened me. After a while though, he met the love of his life, and I was happy for their brief joy together. I always wanted to give a little something from my perspective however, albeit with his blessing. I meant to post this during his latest round in the hospital, and have him make corrections and approvals as necessary. However, my mind wondered too often to compose anything coherent there, and I never got the chance to see if he would approve, but I think he would. Well, here it goes.
This story takes me back to a time when Jon was 17, my oldest brother 20, and I was 13. Jeremy was following in our father’s footsteps, a sophomore at Notre Dame. Jon and I still going to high school and junior high school in our hometown, respectively. Spring break was approaching fast for us two younger brothers. My parents seized the opportunity to buy us plane tickets to South Bend, because it was “Sibling Weekend” there on the first weekend of our spring break, and we were to stay even longer. My parents could have just been trying to get rid of us for a week, but I think they had some inkling of what would happen. I am forever grateful for it.
Jon and I got along about as well as could be asked, for how different we were. Jonny was an everyman, enjoying competition of all sorts, be it hunting or fishing outdoors, or schooling somebody on the basketball court. I was happiest to be under a warm blanket, with a good book or an entertaining movie. My brother was bummed about being away from his friends, but more than excited to get the opportunity to spend more time at the university he revered, especially considering he knew he’d get to meet some of the amazing athletes he’d read about in my father’s Blue and Gold Illustrated issues. I would be content so long as I would be given some space to read or some time to spend on my oldest brother’s computer.
On the long flight to Chicago and the shorter one to South Bend, we talked quite a bit, mostly unsure and excited of what would lay ahead of us, arguing over who would sleep on Jeremy’s futon while the other slept on the floor. There was a pamphlet there detailing all the events of sibling weekend, but we decided we would adhere loosely to it. When we arrived, it was a sunny and beautiful day, and the taxi took us right up to Jeremy’s dorm. We knew where to go: we had been there before a few times, most recently the fall before to see a game. Jon and I walked out of the stairway on Jeremy’s floor (or JMay, as he was known there) to find him standing in the lobby with about half a dozen of his friends. I never will forget the moments that followed, as we were introduced to them. There was a man curled up into a tight little ball on the tiny lobby couch, with what I assumed to be a huge pile of blankets. The washrag on his head and tissue box next to him made it apparent he was sick, but he got up to introduce himself all the same. As the large man stood up and towered over us, I realized it was not a pile of blankets but a thin fleece, and he introduced himself as Jordan Black. I was impressed by his size, but the name meant little to me, because I was a casual fan at best, watching games with my brother and father on Saturdays, knowing little of redshirt freshmen. Jon’s eyes were as big as saucers, however, and he simply shook his head later when I asked if he played on the basketball team.
We spent the coming week in Keough Hall as students, eating every meal at the dining hall, going to mass on the bottom floor, we even went to a few classes with Jeremy. Jon and I often broke off on our own, when Jeremy was working or in class and we weren’t along for the ride. Jon was an excellent brother to me, and Jeremy a great one as well: a surrogate father of sorts, making sure we didn’t get into too much mischief. We brushed paths with a few more football greats, enjoying every moment of it. When Tony Driver found out he and Jon wore the same size of shoe, he gave a pair of his old cleats to him, boasting that he had scored an ND touchdown off an interception in them and Jon wore them proudly on the football field the next season.
On one of our last days there, Jon and I were getting ready to shoot hoops with a few others while Jeremy was in class, when suddenly Jordan Black came striding up to us again. We had spent a fair amount of time with him during the week, and he offered to take us “little JMays” over to the stadium for a tour. I don’t think we could have rushed him there fast enough, but we took our time as we stepped through the gates to the stadium, walking through the locker room, slapping the “Play Like a Champion Today!” sign as we waked out onto the field awestruck. It brought to my mind that scene in Rudy where Sean Astin walks through there for the first time, and it felt very much like that.
When it came time for us to leave, our relationship was different as brothers. We were all closer after that, after our shared experience. Jon and I especially grew closer after that. He let me tag along with him when he went up to lift weights or go dove hunting, and I had sudden interest in such activities. When it came time for Jon to go away to college, he also followed in my father’s footsteps, though in a different manner. You see, my dad played baseball for a couple years at Notre Dame, but our high school didn’t have a baseball team. Jon made the team at FHSU based almost entirely on athletic ability alone, for he had very limited experience playing in summer leagues with little coaching.
As Jon hit college, I entered high school, and the years ahead of me would have been rough without Jon. It got pretty lonely at a very small high school being the only one decked out in ND gear when everyone else there jeered them, trying to live up to my brother’s athletic legacy as an underdeveloped 95 pound freshman. Guys in the locker room and hallways of the high school who couldn’t touch THE Jonny May, the same Jonny May who could easily bench over 300 pounds and crush them on the field, were sated with pushing little Jared May in the dirt.
Jon came back every weekend, dutifully making the hour and a half trip back home, taking me pheasant hunting or introducing me to new friends in other towns, or even just chilling with me, playing video games or watching movies. He cited a girlfriend in a nearby town as his excuse for coming back all the time, but I took note of the time he spent with me and the time he spent with her and realized why it was he came back. I turned to him for advice with girls, with drinking, all sorts of things I was afraid to go to my parents about. Jon was happy to do all that and more, fostering me while he could and talking to me on messenger and over the phone besides.
Jon and my father helped me blossom over the years into a decent athlete (no small feat, given my lack of size and speed) and with much thanks to Jon, I was one of the most popular guys in the school by the time I was a senior (nothing to boast about in an obscenely small school).
With my legacy status and test scores, I likely could have gotten into Notre Dame, but instead I followed in Jon’s footsteps. He stayed at Fort Hays State University for an extra semester while he was shopping around various grad schools, and I went there happily, and he eased my transition from high school to college even more than he did my previous transition. I never will forget going over to his house every Saturday, watching Notre Dame games on his TV. even though Jon lived right across from the stadium, we’d just crank the volume of the television right up over FHSU’s stadium loudspeakers.
One of my latest great memories of him was at the Michigan game last fall. Just a week and a half before, the doctors told him he’d never leave ICU, at least not alive. One pulminologist told my parents bluntly that we needed to start making funeral plans, that he had at best a week or two left in him. He was shocked when my parents told them that we were finalizing his wedding plans instead, calling them all delusional. Jon proved them all wrong and was out of there sooner than everybody thought, and determined to go to the Michigan game. My heart dropped a bit when I saw the forecast the day before; I had been hoping for sunny skies, which clearly was not going to happen. My brother was still determined to go however, and I remember struggling through the crowds, pushing his wheelchair in one hand while holding his big oxygen tank in the other, trying to keep the tank and my brother dry. Jon had a smile on his face, when he wasn’t out of breath, and I could see the excitement on his face as we took our seats.
It was there that I saw a man who could barely talk above a whisper, who had been bedridden in an ICU less than a week before with no hope to live, yell and cheer wildly with his brother and family. It was there than Jon gave me consecutive high fives after watching the touchdowns come like the rain, despite having a foot long steel rod put in his arm a few weeks before. I watched him put his oxygen down and walk over to the concession stand, even with a similar and more recently installed rod in his leg and lungs brimming with tumors. I was soaked to the bone, but I didn’t care, because my brother was happy and we were celebrating a wonderful victory for both Our Mother and for Jonathan.
We were best friends as well as brothers, and I miss him more than I ever thought possible. I get sad when I think about moments we’ll never get to share, how he’ll never get to be best man at my wedding (not any time soon) as I was at his, or how I’ll never get to play uncle to any kids he might have had… but when I do I think back on memories like that game and I feel a little better. If Jon had the strength to face everything he did, unflinching and uncomplaining, I can surely get through this. Thanks for reading, sorry for the length.