Justin Bolton: The Sport, The Struggle, The Smile

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By, Kira Northrop


           Just three years ago, in the Fall of 2014, Justin Bolton was a 12 year-old with a passion for competition.  His outlet was football.  Justin was thriving as one of the ‘boys of fall,’ enjoying every moment getting to strap on a helmet and play with his teammates.  During games, he was a stand-out, running for touchdowns and making plays all over the field; but suddenly, Justin started experiencing tremendous headaches. His headaches started to affect his play and eventually extended to everything that he did in his daily activities. Concerned with what she was witnessing, Justin’s mother decided to take him to the hospital in October of 2014, but the doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause. For months Justin’s headaches just continued to worsen. His mother’s persistence eventually led to a neurologist to find out where his pain was coming from. “On January 26th is where our nightmare began,” said Justin’s mother, Adrianna Bolton.The neurologist ordered an MRI to rule out some type of undetected injury, and the results were devastating.

Justin Bolton


            Justin’s MRI revealed a rather large brain tumor.  Adrianna was in shock.  Unable to understand how this could be happening to her baby, she was suddenly jolted back into reality once the doctors started talking to her about the process Justin would have to go through in order to save his life. Her only thought in that moment was, “how am I going to tell Justin what was happening.”  After gathering the courage to tell Justin what was happening, she instantly burst into tears and they embraced. Drawing from the strength and tenacity he demonstrated on the football field, Justin only had one response, “we will get through this”. That was just his personality, trying to comfort his mother through this hard time. Justin always is the consummate teammate, putting others before himself. A truly special 12 year-old, indeed.


          Justin was rushed to Johns Hopkins Medical Hospital for brain surgery the next morning. “We never had time to wrap our heads around it,” said Adrianna. The next several weeks were a blur; there were two brain surgeries in the span of three days, and the agonizing wait for pathology results. Adrianna was sitting by Justin’s hospital bed on February 2nd 2015, when the doctors came in with the news. “At that moment I died inside,” is how Adrianna would describe receiving the news that indeed the tumor was cancerous, a type of brain cancer called Medulloblastoma. As a mother, she never felt so helpless. Here was her son in tremendous pain, fighting, for what they know now is his life. “As a mother, it is our job to protect them,” but in this moment there was nothing that she could do. 


          As Justin recovered from his surgeries, the reality of the toll from the cancer would take began to take shape. Justin could no longer walk or even eat. “It was like having a newborn baby,” says his mother. He spent a month at Hopkins and then was transferred to Kennedy for another month of intensive rehabilitation. Adrianna signed Justin’s chemotherapy consent on his 13th birthday, March 17th, 2015. He then underwent 9 “horrible” rounds of chemo. There were repetitive rounds of radiation, chemo, MRI’s, hospital stays, platelets, transfusions, seizures, and surgeries during his rehabilitation. On May 2nd, 2016; Justin was declared to be in remission. News that couldn’t come fast enough for the strong family. “We couldn’t be happier,” stated Adrianna.


Justin and Antonio carrying the Flame of Hope

          Just as they thought things were getting to the new normal, and they could finally let their guard down, Justin went in for his follow-up scan. On November 25th, 2016; devastating news was in store for the now nearly 60 pound, 13 year-old, the tumor was back. He then went through his third brain surgery on December 10th. All went well, and he could go home and “relax” for a little while. He was then transferred to the Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C. to start a trial with the hope that the new treatment would keep the growing cancer at bay. The Children’s Hospital have engineered a vaccine that allows Justin’s own cells to fight against the cancer cells in his body. Unfortunately, it is not without side effects as Justin has developed  Veno-occlusive Disease, which clogged his liver and led to more treatments and a return to Johns Hopkins in May 2017.


           Today, Justin is cancer free, but his battle against the disease continues. He has fought with such intensity to get back to a ‘normal’ life, as normal as it can be for now. When questioned about his cancer, Justin responds that, “cancer changed my life, there is nothing that is the same.” Mentally, Justin is the same exuberant teammate he was on that football field in 2014, but his physical disabilities make his world very different. Justin needs a wheelchair to get around most of the time and has a difficult time using his right arm. Throughout this long and hard-fought journey Justin would remember how much he loved playing sports before he became ill, “especially football” — so he knew he had to get involved again.


          This 2017 Fall Sports season Justin decided to take a chance, at North County High School. Justin decided to join a new team, the North County’s Interscholastic Unified tennis team. Unified sports provides a means which brings together students with and without intellectual or physical disabilities in a fulfilling inclusive experience. Unified sports teams are composed of a proportional number of students with intellectual or physical disabilities, and without disabilities, who train and compete together on the same team.


Justin returning a hit during the 2017 IUS Tennis Championship

            The North County Knights Unified Tennis team welcomed him with open arms in mid-September when the season started. Coach Magness, the Unified Tennis coach, talked about Justin’s progress throughout the season stating when Justin first started, “he couldn’t even get the ball over the net. Now he is getting the ball over the net on not only his serves but even during play. Justin is an awesome athlete and an inspiration to everyone on the team.”


            Every unified partner when asked mentioned how Justin lifts up his teammates and that he makes them laugh every day at practice or matches. Mason Bennett, a Unified Tennis partner, stated that “playing Unified Tennis with Justin has really made me appreciate everything more. Justin will come out to practices every day and he always gives his all, and it is so inspiring.” Inspiring is the consistent theme throughout every discussion of Justin and his involvement in Unified tennis.


            The North County Unified Tennis team has provided Justin an outlet for his competitive spirit and desire to be part of a team, but it is his team has been the primary benefactor of his involvement in the program.  Coach Magness states that, “he has shown us what life is really about and teaching us to live each day to the fullest. He has helped us as a team and as a school to grow and appreciate life every day.” The North County Unified Tennis team is not just a team, they are a ‘family,’ and a significant reason for this is Justin Bolton’s wonderful personality. He has changed the entire school of North County and has brought everyone, especially the Knight’s Unified Tennis family, closer together.


            Nothing could demonstrate this more than the inspiration Justin provided at the recent County Championships. At that match, Justin lifted himself out of his wheelchair, walked onto the tennis court, and competed alongside his Unified Partner, Antonio LaForte,  In a hard-fought back-and-forth series of volleys, Justin and Antonio strung together enough points to win their pivotal match and send the Knights to the State Championship on November, 1st.  The Knights went on to win their division this season; but as it is with all Unified Sports, the real victory is in the competitive spirit and inspiration that the competition brings out in all of us. 

Antonio and Justin talking about their next serve.


           Through all of his trials and tribulations, Justin “has never lost his sense of humor, his positivity, and his everyday smile,” says mother Adrianna Bolton. Justin had made everyone on the North County Unified Tennis team appreciate life a little more because he is now in it.


            Justin plans to continue playing Unified Sports, competing on the bowling team in the winter and bocce in the spring. His positivity will never change, and he will continue to be a positive force and affect the lives of every person he meets, through his undeniable strength and determination.

This article was written by Kira Northrop