Heroes reportedly come in all shapes and sizes.
The Brooks School wrestling team didn’t realize that, at its biggest meet of the year recently, its hero would take the form of the smallest kid on the team,
Enter 5-foot-3, 103-pound Jackson Quinn of Andover.
The freshman wrestling at 110 pounds — “I can’t eat that much to get to 110 (pounds),” Jackson said — took the mat with everything on the line, including the match between rival Belmont Hill and the Independent School League championship.
Add in the fact that Brooks hadn’t beaten Belmont Hill in a decade and, well, you get the picture.
Brooks led 34-32 before Jackson stepped to the mat as the last match of the day. He wins, Brooks wins. He loses, Belmont Hill wins.
The irony is that Jackson never saw himself as a clutch performer, particularly on a wrestling mat. The first-year wrestler was 2-9 and had taken more than his fair share of beatings.
“I was very, very nervous,” Jackson, 14, recalled. “I was almost sick to my stomach when I realized it would all come down to my match. But I had to find a way to not think about that.”
What Jackson failed to realize before that match was the fact that nobody in that gym that day was more ready for the challenge than he was. Nobody.
Three years earlier, Jackson had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a treatable form of the disease.
It was a day his father, Richard Quinn, will never forget.
“My wife and I were nervous as we told him about the diagnosis, that he had cancer and leukemia,” he said. “He looked us in the eye and said, ‘I can’t wait for the day when I will say I beat cancer.’ I looked at him and said ‘That’s the greatest gift anybody ever gave me in my life.’”
It wasn’t easy. There were many days in which his son would vomit for hours. He’d get bloated, chubby cheeks. He lost his hair. And then there were the heavy legs.
“The heavy legs were brutal,” Jackson recalled. “The treatments were tough, but the aftereffects were tougher. I had to spend so many days in the hospital. I hated it. I hated lying down and doing nothing.”
The steroids, radiation and chemotherapy treatments lasted for 2 1/2 years, through March 2013.
“The thing was I wrestled in high school (in Virginia) and I always wanted him to wrestle,” Richard Quinn said. “Wrestling is a great sport because you have to be tough. Nothing about the sport comes easy. I was pretty good in high school.
“And the irony was that I was the same weight he was, about 100 pounds as a freshman. But when we were talking about him starting in the sport, he got sick. And we sort of forgot about wrestling.”
The only sport his son was able to play through the many treatments was baseball, his first love. But because of the treatment doses, his right shoulder was too painful to use. He loved baseball so much he learned to throw the ball left-handed and played outfield.
“I always thought that some day when a story like this would be about Jackson, it would be about him hitting a home run or winning a big baseball game,” Richard Quinn said. “I never even considered wrestling.”
In fact, his real expectations for his son’s wrestling career would be that he’d get over his struggles this year and want to wrestle as a sophomore.
When Jackson arrived at Brooks, wrestling was not even discussed ... until two wrestlers informed him the team didn’t have a 106-pounder (the weight is now 110 pounds).
“They really talked me into it,” Jackson said, adding that he was six to eight pounds less than most of his foes. “I figured I’d give it a try.”
Which brings us to Jackson’s big match on Saturday, Feb. 1.
“We all knew before the match that it was probably going to come down to the last match (of the day),” Richard Quinn said. “I told my wife, Julie, the only thing we don’t want to happen is to have Jackson’s match as the last match.”
When the pre-match lot was drawn to select the first match on, the 116-pound weight class was chosen. That meant, as he had dreaded, that his son’s match would be last, probably for “all the marbles.”
But, his son had some confidence in himself.
“I hadn’t wrestled the kid before, but I figured I had a pretty good chance against him,” Jackson said. “I honestly did.”
For about the first 90 seconds of the match, Jackson and his Belmont Hill competitor fought to a stalemate. For most of those 90 seconds, Jackson held on to his opponent’s right leg. With the Belmont Hill wrestler appearing to have him set up for a “cradle,” Jackson broke away and put his opponent on his back.
“I was not going to let go of his leg,” Jackson said. “I just wasn’t going to let go. I think that helped when I eventually was able to turn him on his back.”
The crowd went into a frenzy as Jackson slowly attempted to get both of his opponent’s shoulders on the mat. It took about 30 seconds before the referee slammed the mat for the pin and Brooks’ victory.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of big wins here and that might be the biggest,” said Brooks’ longtime wrestling coach, Alex Konovalchik, whose sons, Andrew and Nick, are two of the school’s top wrestlers.
“We’ve had some tough, tough losses against Belmont Hill. We hadn’t beaten them in 10 years. And then this, with Jackson pulling it off. It’s been a few days and I still get chills talking about it.”
A video of the match was taken by his mom. One of the poignant scenes featured a girl running across the mat and giving Jackson a hug about 30 seconds after the match. It was his older sister, Megan, a senior at Brooks.
“I really believe that Jackson was ready for that moment because of all he had been through,” Konovalchik said. “I’ve had kids that have been very good wrestlers, who have crumbled in a moment like that. The pressure is too much.
“Jackson handled it like a champion. He was incredible.”
Bill Burt is executive sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune and a regular contributing columnist for the Andover Townsman. You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.