Mason Blanchard never played a game for the Fairfield High School football team but was an integral part of the Indians’ 2018 season.
Months following his passing, they still consider him a big part of the team. Fairfield is dedicating this season to Blanchard, an inspiring young man who won’t be forgotten after losing a year-long battle with rhabdomyosarcoma at the age of 17.
Players and coaches say he will always be with them when they take the field.
Blanchard, a special education student, had spent the entire offseason last year lifting with the team and was set to suit up with the Indians last fall. A week before helmets were issued to the players, doctors discovered a tumor behind his eye socket. It turned out to be rhabdomyosarcoma, which accounts for three percent of all childhood cancers.
The sophomore could no longer play but remained with Fairfield as student manager, attending almost every practice and game. The rare occasions he missed were while undergoing treatment. Players still considered him one of their teammates, not just someone who happened to help with equipment and cheer them on every week.
“He was practicing with us until that time in June they found that,” coach Jason Krause recalls. “He just remained with us and was very much a part of our team. He couldn’t participate but was there every day.”
Athletic director Aaron Blankenship got to know Blanchard while serving as assistant principal the past two-plus years. The two would talk during football games and Blankenship always enjoyed his company and insight on the game.
The friendly student had a unique and innocent view on life.
“He was a special kid,” Blankenship said. “He was a phenomenal kid with a smile that would light up the room. I know it’s a little cliché, but he had such a great personality. I had a blast talking with him during the games. He loved being out there when he could be and was great support for the kids. We will all miss him.”
Blanchard kept that smile on his face throughout his illness. Krause said everyone knew he was going through a lot of pain, but he never once complained. All the while, Blanchard kept encouraging the Indians when it seemed it should have been the other way around.
Fairfield went 7-4, earning the program’s sixth playoff appearance since 2000, and its lone two Greater Miami Conference losses came to perennial champion Colerain and Mason, who earned the No. 2 seed in the Division 1, Region 4 playoffs.
“Just his presence was a motivating factor to me,” said senior running back JuTahn McClain, who rushed for 1,754 yards and 25 touchdowns last year as a junior. “Knowing what he was going through and seeing him still smiling through it all, nothing could be tougher than that, so that just made me want to play harder and get through whatever challenges we faced.”
Fairfield entered a showdown with Colerain still unbeaten in GMC play and 7-1 overall. After a slow start to the game, the Indians clawed their way back just a six-point deficit with less than five minutes left in the third quarter. Colerain responded with a vengeance and rolled to a 55-27 win.
Blankenship remembers Blanchard telling him at that game, “Next year, I’m going to be out there.” Just the memory of that conversation causes Blankenship to choke up a bit.
“I think for him he always viewed himself with the opportunity to play,” Blankenship said. “He always felt like part of the team, but I think he really wanted to be out there on the field.”
Blanchard only will be there in spirit Nov. 1 when the Cardinals travel to Fairfield for the season finale, but his presence should be obvious to everyone.
Fairfield will be wearing decals – designed by junior wide receiver Jaydan Mayes with Blanchard’s initials and the cancer ribbon — on the left side of their helmets all season. The Indians have retired the No. 1 jersey Blanchard wore and will still list him on their roster for as long as Krause is on staff.
McClain will carry Blanchard’s jersey with him to the coin toss before every game, and Krause said the Indians are still working on some other ideas to honor Blanchard, such as planting a memorial tree.
“Everyone wants to play for him,” Krause said. “He was around every day last year and he is important to our kids. Genuinely, our kids loved Mason. They had love in their hearts for him. It was tough for our kids to lose someone like him, but everyone on our roster wants to play for him and remember him. He’s a very important part of what we’re doing.”
Blanchard physically was becoming drained as the treatments wore on and his condition worsened. He started missing more school toward the end of the year and he was spending more time in the hospital.
Krause said he and the players knew it was taking a toll on Blanchard, but when the announcement came over the public-address speaker May 23rd – the last day of school – that Blanchard had passed away, there was a surreal silence that swept over the building.
A memorial service was held at the school and the entire football team attended.
“We knew it wasn’t looking good; they found some more things, but you’re never prepared for anything like that,” Krause said. “It was surprising it happened that quickly.”
Blanchard, who was born prematurely at 27 weeks gestation, had always been a fighter. According to his obituary, he was in the hospital for three months after birth and despite experiencing developmental delays and challenges throughout his life, including two foot surgeries within the last three years, “there was nothing Mason could not do or did not want to try.”
The way Blanchard had stayed so positive about his future even with his illness made it difficult to believe he couldn’t recover.
McClain still remembers making some plans with Blanchard the last day he saw him.
“Knowing he passed away like he did is really hard so we just want to do everything we can to keep his memory alive,” McClain said.
It will be tough for McClain to do much more than what he accomplished last year when he became Fairfield’s all-time single-season touchdown leader with 31 all-purpose scores with Blanchard cheering him on from the sidelines. He is aiming for 3,000 all-purpose yards this year and said he will look to the skies for Blanchard’s inspiration.
Krause said Blanchard gave players a lot of perspective last year and taught them how to handle adversity prior to his death. That’s one thing that will make them better in 2019, as they seek to finish as strong as they had started last year before losing three straight to end the season.
“Mason was such a special kid,” Krause said. “He holds a special place in my heart, and I miss him dearly. The players are playing for him, but as coaches, we’re coaching our rear ends off for him too.”