NASHVILLE, Tenn. (July 24, 2017) – A pulmonary condition permanently sidelined Jalan Sowell from the gridiron last season, but his comeback narrative of “never giving up” on ESPN’s “Make A Wish” series kick starts a new dream of inspiring others and one day coaching football.
The 16-year-old running back for the Mt. Juliet Golden Bears produced and starred in the ESPN segment that aired July 20. ESPN also included his story in a one-hour “My Wish” compilation show July 23. He took viewers on an in-depth journey into his life, medical condition, and wish to produce and be part of an inspirational feature.
James Sowell, safety officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, accompanied his son to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., for the showing of his “Make a Wish” segment, where Jalan also shared his story during live interviews on SportsCenter and with “Mike and Mike” on ESPN Radio.
Jalan toured the ESPN campus and met personalities such as Coach Herm Edwards and NBA Great Paul Pierce. He said he had a blast, but is more grateful that ESPN granted his wish so he could reach millions of viewers and inspire other athletes his age with his message.
“Just don’t give up. Keep pushing and fighting and God has a plan,” Jalan said. “It might not be the dream you always wanted, but it’s still going to be where you need to be.”
Jalan said it was a learning experience in the studio, and he really appreciates how ESPN made everything so special for him.
“I got to produce, edit, play with stuff you’re not supposed to touch,” Jalan said. “They treated us very well. I had an amazing time.”
James said his son’s segment was in itself very therapeutic for his son, who had several scary episodes last year where he was out of breath. Jalan even collapsed on the football field during practice right after rambling 60 yards for a touchdown. Vanderbilt Medical Center diagnosed him with chronic pulmonary embolism, a life threatening condition where blood clots pose serious health risks.
“I was totally scared and upset but I couldn’t show him,” James said. “When we were told what he had and how deadly it was that’s when it really got the best (of us), but I had to keep a strong face for him.”
Jalan said as he handed the ball to the ref he couldn’t catch his breath, and headed for the trainer when he fell on the field. He went straight to Vanderbilt Medical Center where he learned he had blood clots in his lungs.
“I was lost and didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Jalan said.
His dad James and mom Amanda did everything possible to lift him up in the hospital and after his release, realizing the seriousness of his condition and potential for depression.
“They always told me there was a better purpose for me, that God had a better purpose for me,” Jalan said. “Life is more important than playing a sport, and I realized that.”
James maintains and operates a Corps of Engineers Emergency Command and Control Vehicle that provides emergency response teams with network connectivity and communications, a great responsibility. He said his coworkers and leaders throughout the organization have been very supportive of him with his son’s challenges, and it’s very obvious their priority is “taking care of people.” That made it easier to focus on supporting Jalan, he said.
Jalan controls his condition with medication and is grateful for his doctors at Vanderbilt, but the star running back can’t play football. His coach, teammates, and community have been picking him up, making it clear he’s still a difference maker and an integral part of the team.
Trey Perry, head football coach of the Golden Bears, said there wasn’t anything perfect he could say to make it better for Jalan, except to tell him to look forward, to set goals, talk about what’s next, and that’s what he did.
The coach said Jalan was an explosive running back, a big hitter who could get six points at any point in a game. But he’s most proud of him for winning in the game of life. Through the process of his prognosis and his segment on ESPN, he made it about everyone who had impacted him, who had helped him through the sickness, and to positively impact other young athletes.
“He had the opportunity to make it about probably a hundred other things. And a lot of teenagers, you know, that may be what goes through their mind. But not Jalan,” Perry said. “That’s what I think was so neat about the whole thing. It was bigger than that for him.”
Perry said Jalan is a leader and will be an asset supporting the team this year, especially helping his younger brother, a freshman prospect. He said when it comes to transitioning from a player to coach, he wants Jalan to know it’s his experience that it’s really about two things.
“I want you to be better than I was. I want you to figure it out quicker. That’s what being a coach is really,” Perry said.
James said he is proud and overjoyed that his son Jalan pivoted from hardship, but admits he has no clue how he came up with his wish.
“It kind of surprised us all. We were sitting there with our initial meeting with ‘Make A Wish’ and they pointed out what they do for kids. My wife and I were thinking we were going to Hawaii or the Super Bowl, and when he said what he said to ‘Make A Wish,’ they were kind of floored.”
He didn’t want to go anywhere. He just wanted to share his story and he wanted to tell others facing adversity to never give up, James said.
Jalan is a senior this year at Mt. Juliet High School and intends on motivating his teammates to win a state championship as a student coach. When he graduates, he plans to attend the University of Memphis, working on the Tigers football staff as a student assistant coach.