Never Give Up: The Jon Hershberger Story
BREMEN, Ind. - Never give up. Those are the three words that caused two paths to cross on one basketball court.
The first path traveled by college freshman, Lauren Hill, a girl diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of brain cancer right after she turned 18.
All she wanted to do was play her first college basketball game.
The second path traveled by Bremen's Jon Hershberger, a local referee that helped make Hill's wish come true.
And, although Hershberger may not have 10,000 fans screaming his name, he does have a special group of girls in his life that inspire him to never give up.
It's minutes before game time at Bremen High School. But before the first pitch is thrown, Coach Hershberger has something to say to his team.
“This speech is by a young softball player named Sarah Nowicki,” says Hershberger as he reads aloud a passage from his iPhone.
It's a speech that stands for more than the game played on the field.
“You taught me I can always take more than my body thinks,” reads Hershberger.
It's a speech that puts Hershberger's life into perspective.
“You taught me that winning isn't always everything,” Hershberger says.
A speech he hopes the young ladies on his softball team will cherish.
But before he finishes this speech, we must all understand his story.
“I played four years of baseball and four years of football here in Bremen,” says Hershberger.
He's a sports fanatic who grew up playing high school sports alongside his two brothers.
“So, I wanted to follow in their footsteps but I wanted to be better.”
It was that competitiveness that brought him to Bethel College.
“I was part of a national championship team,” says Hershberger.
And after college, this UPS worker by day, didn't want to say goodbye to sports just yet.
Hershberger went to a developmental camp to train to be a referee. Now, he officiates NAIA women's college basketball.
“It's been a big part of my life,” says Hershberger.
And that's what brought him to Xavier University's sports arena in Cincinnati on November 2, 2014.
“You look and say ‘Wow!' 10,000 people,” says Hershberger.
10,000 people were in attendance for this Mount Saint Joseph versus Hiram College basketball game.
A present-day David vs. Goliath. A true underdog story.
David played by college freshman Lauren Hill.
“She was an amazing 18-year-old girl,” says Hershberger.
Goliath: a rare form of cancer that destroyed most of Hill's brain. As her condition worsened, she only had one wish.
“Just play one time, that's all she wanted,” says Hershberger.
The coaches and officials wanted to make that night special for Lauren. So, they made sure at the jump ball, Lauren could make what would be her first and only play.
“She had to shoot left-handed because she had no motor skills on her right,” says Hershberger. “She takes the dribble and lays it up with her left hand and it went in.”
The shot is scored and the emotion that followed is worth more than the two points on the scoreboard.
“Seeing her teammates run out on the floor, her coach jump up and down for joy, I'll never get rid of that image,” says Hershberger.
It was a moment in history that would bring a tear to anyone's eye.
“That will never be taken away from me,” says Hershberger.
It was a moment in Hershberger's life that was special for a different reason. Like Lauren, Hershberger has cancer.
“To fight this disease, I gotta be as strong as I can,” says Hershberger.
Back in 2009 at a dental check up, dentists found something alarming on the roof of his mouth.
“It's called adenoid cystic carcinoma,” says Hershberger.
It's a rare condition that caused him to lose some of his front teeth and the feeling on parts of his mouth and tongue.
Doctors tried their best to get rid of it.
“I went in for surgery for over 14 hours.”
Add to that, hundreds of miles spent in a car driving to and from Ann Arbor for top of the line care.
“I live with pain on almost an everyday basis,” says Hershberger.
But nothing compares to the pain Hershberger felt when he first learned his cancer was incurable.
He's faced with only a 15% chance to live the first 5 years, but Hershberger says he lives with it for his family, and the countless young men and women he's coached and officiated for for two decades.
“I can't go anywhere,” says Hershberger.
And as if just being at this game wasn't enough, Hershberger took a rare opportunity to touch one more life.
“I knew the pain and suffering that she had to go through,” says Hershberger.
Switching uniforms from a man in charge of the rules of the game, to a man trying to break the rules of a deadly disease.
“She started crying, I started crying,” says Hershberger. “I told her I was a cancer survivor.”
His message to Lauren was simple, borrowing a phrase from legendary Coach Jimmy V.
“Don't give up. Don't ever give up,” says Hershberger.
That's a phrase Lauren fought with until she died this past April at the age of 19 when her cancer took an ugly turn.
“It's too bad that other people didn't get to meet her,” says Hershberger.
Although she's physically gone, Hershberger carries her memory with him always.
“I wouldn't trade any of my experiences for the world,” says Hershberger.
Hershberger's disease is truly a life-long battle. He undergoes treatments at what he calls the best cancer facility in the country, about three hours away in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And he's not slowing down. He will continue to officiate and coach. So, you might see him on the sidelines of your favorite team's game.