It’s hard to question the heart and willpower of a wrestler, but Justin Sears is on a level all by himself.

A senior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School, the 18-year-old has gone through the usual trials and tribulations of a student athlete. But everything changed the first week of December.

Throughout his three years as a member of the Bulldogs varsity team, the 182-pounder struggled with what he thought was just reoccurring pneumonia and asthma.

Encouraged to get to the bottom of things, he was admitted seven weeks ago to Cleveland Clinic Akron General, where he was told he has a rare form of lung cancer and was diagnosed with carcinoid syndrome.

Carcinoid syndrome occurs when a rare cancerous tumor called a carcinoid tumor secretes chemicals into the bloodstream, causing a variety of signs and symptoms. It occurs primarily in the gastrointestinal tract or lungs.

For Sears, the tumor is in the right main bronchus, which is a major air passage of the lungs from the windpipe.

Hearing news like that would devastate even the toughest of patients. Sears got the news and shrugged it off.

“I’ve had kind of a rough life,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of different school districts. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve been poor. With everything I’ve been through, this really isn’t all that hard. It’s nothing like I thought it would be. When I found out I have cancer, for me, it was like, ‘What’s next?’

“When I’ve gone through hard times before, that was just the way things were. I didn’t have the luxury to complain about it. It’s made me who I am. This is just another setback. I’ll get through it. I’m sure.”

Although he’s been at Stow all four years because of open enrollment, hard times have forced Sears to live in the Cuyahoga Falls, Springfield, Ellet and Garfield school systems.

Sears currently lives with his sister, Katelyn Ricketson, 21, in Cuyahoga Falls, and heads to his grandmother’s house on the weekend to be with Sandy Sowers, 66, who lives in the Ellet school district.

His parents, Ryan Sears and Timothia Ricketson, who live in the Kenmore district, are still very much a part of his life.

Finding out

Asthma for a wrestler is never a good thing, but Sears has had pneumonia six times the past two seasons.

While it frustrated him at times, he knew there was more to his condition than just a bad fever.

“That was the toughest part of the situation,” Sears said. “I kept getting taken to the doctor. I told them something was wrong, I don’t feel right. They said I had pneumonia or asthma. They’d send me home and I thought I was crazy. I thought it was just in my head. It was a relief they found something.”

That reaction might shock some of those around him, but he was just Justin being Justin to the rest of the family.

His strength and courage have been the glue many times during hardships, but seeing the never-quit attitude gave them even deeper meaning.

“He’s an incredible kid,” Katelyn Ricketson said. “I still can’t wrap my head around it. He’s the strongest one in the family. He hasn’t broken down. He just keeps telling us he’ll be fine. I don’t know how he keeps pushing. I don’t know how he’s so motivated. To this date, I just wonder how. I would be a mess.”

Not accepting ‘no’

Sears never asked, Why me? Wrestling since he was in seventh grade, all Sears wanted to do was get back to the mat and join his team.

After conversations with the doctors, he found out he could postpone surgery until after the season.

“He came in and he’s never missed a beat,” Stow wrestling coach Randy Jenkins said. “His teammates see the kid working out and really getting involved. I’ve never seen a kid like this in my 16 years here.

“Most kids when they get sick or hurt are down and out, but he’s motivated. He pumps kids up that aren’t working hard in practice. He’s of rare blood. He’s the type of kid if you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to do it. It’s a plus for us to see this kid out there competing.”

JJ Savage

The community has served as a support group during Sears’ struggles and has become an extended family.

Shirts were made to help defer some medical expenses and are worn in the wrestling room as well as in the district.

They’re black T-shirts with “Stow Wrestling” on the front with a white ribbon and the initials “JJS” near the heart, with “#SEARSSTRONG” at the top on the back with a white ribbon down the middle that reads “JJ Savage.”

The community has had bake sales and other events, and has been the backbone for Sears as he looks to push through.

“It touches my heart to see the things they’ve done for him,” Timothia Ricketson said. “Just how many people have ordered the T-shirt. It’s amazing that he has all this support. He’s tough as nails. He always has been. I’m so proud of him. He handles it way better than I do.”

Inspiration

Sears’ return came on Dec. 28 with a warning on his Facebook page. It came in the form of a picture of him standing next to Jenkins with the words “It’s been confirmed … y’all in trouble,” along with a muscle and fire emoji.

“It shows everyone on the team how much dedication he has and how much he loves the sport,” teammate Logan Reiheld said. “I feel like most people who were diagnosed wouldn’t come back to the team once they’re cleared. It shows a lot to the team that he’s pushing through. He hasn’t changed. I think it shows how strong he is.”

His first match back came Jan. 4 against Hudson. Sears lost, but it was mostly because he’d only been back in the room for a week. He has won nine of 10 since with eight pins and a technical fall.

The return came with his mom, dad, sister and grandmother in attendance, showing everyone just what a little want-to can do.

“The kid is amazing,” Timothia Ricketson said. “This whole thing has shocked me. He handled it really well. When we first found out, I was upset and he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be OK. Don’t you know who I am? I’m JJ Savage.’ I couldn’t do anything but laugh.”

The next step

After wrestling season, surgeons will go in the right side of Sears’ ribs and concentrate on the air tube where it branches off in his right lung. They’ll take a piece out and sew it together with the hopes of cutting out the cancer.

It’s an incredibly difficult procedure that takes five or six months of recovery time.

“I hope that my situation motivates and inspires my teammates and other people that are going through something,” Sears said. “I hope it gives them hope. This shows you all the problems you’ve been through are really nothing. It shrinks it all down.

“In my case, I’m not asking, ‘Why did it happen to me?’ A lot of kids have it worse. They might have two years left to live. I could have it way worse.”

Sears is already thinking of the next step: He hopes to join the Marines, go to college and study criminal justice, with the hopes of joining a SWAT team or the DEA.

“He doesn’t like to stay down,” Sowers said. “The recovery will be hard on him. He’s loved to run wild since he was young. I think he’ll bounce back quickly and be back to being himself.”