RAVENNA – Keigen Swan sits comfortably in an office chair in the middle of Ravenna High School’s weight room.
Wearing a royal blue-and-white Ravenna football T-shirt and beanie that reads “DOGS” across the front, he’s facing the sign on the wall: WHERE CHAMPIONS ARE MADE.
With lights and a camera pointed at him during a recent CatchMark SportsNet Profile of the Week interview, the unassuming but courageous teen shares his story. Just 2 ½ weeks earlier, Swan was diagnosed with leukemia.
The undersized Ravenna lineman, described by his football coach as the ultimate team player who just scraps, has the weight of the world on his shoulders but an entire community raising him up.
Swan helped the Bulldogs win seven football games this season. In the biggest battle of his life, he’s achieved a milestone victory: His leukemia is in remission. His fight against B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood, continues but Swan exhibits the heart of a champion.
“It was an indescribable feeling,” Swan’s mother, Jennifer Miller, said about receiving the good news Friday. “Just like the wave of heartbreak when I was first told he has leukemia, it hit me like a freight train to hear his oncologist say he is in remission. The only difference is it was a wave of pure joy rather than sadness.”
Photos by Billy Mann, Bethany McCullough and other sources
The highs and lows for Swan in the last couple months have been dramatic. At the peaks, he’s felt the goosebumps and adrenaline rush coming out of the tunnel and charging onto Citizens’ Field with his teammates “like a bunch of wild dogs, ready to chew up any other team,” he said. In the valleys, extreme exhaustion set in from his leukemia to the point where he found it difficult to even pick himself up off the ground between plays.
Swan said he began to really notice fatigue during Ravenna’s 17-6 victory at North Muskegon on Oct. 8. The Bulldogs’ 7-6 home win over the Norsemen in a rematch three weeks later in the first round of the playoffs was his last game.
Five days later – following a visit to the pediatrician and two days before Ravenna was to play at Muskegon Catholic Central in the district finals – Swan’s parents delivered the tough news to their son that he had leukemia.
“It was scary at first – very scary. I didn’t believe it,” the soft-spoken Swan said. “I thought I was dreaming, when I woke up in the middle of the night with my parents standing over me. It wasn’t something that I really wanted to hear.”
According to Miller, her son will undergo three years of treatment administered in different stages.
The first month was “Induction,” which involved weekly chemotherapy, lumbar punctures and two bone-marrow biopsies – one at the beginning of the stage and another at the end. The goal of the first stage was for Swan to be in remission, and that was achieved.
Swan, who turned 17 last week, is still in high-risk treatment because of his age, according to Miller. During football season, the 5-foot-9 Swan was listed at 205 pounds. In recent weeks, his weight dipped to 186 as he lost weight before treatment, but he’s back up to 196. His mother said he gained some weight back from the steroids he was taking daily, which kill the mutated B-Cells.
The next stage of treatment is called “Consolidation,” which lasts for two months. It consists of weekly appointments for lumbar punctures with intrathecal chemo as well as other chemo through the port in his chest, plus a daily pill. His family will administer chemo through his port at home. Miller said it will be a difficult few months for her son as his treatments will hit hard in an effort to “clear out the bad parts” in his bone marrow that are producing cancer cells.
Miller said it’s going to be a very long fight, involving six months of heavy chemo and daily meds, and that her son will be on meds for the next 3 ½ years.
Swan’s prognosis is good, his mother said. According to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital website, about 98 percent of children with ALL go into remission within weeks after starting treatment. About 90 percent of those children can be cured, and patients are considered cured after 10 years in remission.
Swan will be home-schooled for the rest of his junior year with the plan of returning to school as a senior. If it’s up to him, he’ll be back on the football field with the Bulldogs next fall.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Jason Swan said about his son. “He goes in every week, he’s ready to do what he’s got to do. He’s taking it very well. His attitude throughout this is amazing – he’s ready to win.”
Jason Swan and Jennifer Miller separated when Keigen was about a year old, but they co-parent and remain close friends. Miller said her husband, Troy, also is close with Jason. As it pertains to Keigen’s leukemia, Jennifer Miller said they’re all fighting it together.
Jason Swan lives in Stanton, about an hour northeast of Ravenna. Typically, Keigen visits his dad on weekends, but he and Jennifer Miller stayed at Jason’s place shortly after Keigen started leukemia treatments because even more adversity hit shortly after the diagnosis: A mold issue was discovered in the basement of the Millers’ Ravenna home.
That week was a whirlwind. On Thursday, Keigen was admitted into Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. On Friday, the Millers learned about the mold issue.
Friday night, Ravenna’s football team lost at Muskegon Catholic Central, 50-14, but both school communities came together to show heartwarming support for Keigen. Players and fans alike wore orange to raise awareness for leukemia in a sign of solidarity that Keigen is not fighting cancer alone. Players affixed decals on the backs of their helmets – an orange ribbon with his number 77. Banners were made and fences decorated in his honor.
Keigen watched it all on his phone from his hospital bed, as sister Makayla – wearing his white No. 77 jersey – FaceTimed from the sideline.
“It meant a lot,” Keigen said. “I never thought people from a different town would show that much support. It was very nice, knowing that people cared, showing up with all the orange and putting the ’77’ cups on their fences and stuff. They even had it on their pregame announcements, supporting me. That felt really nice.”
On Saturday, Jennifer Miller was back home, starting to remove belongings from the basement. Before long, people from the town of Ravenna showed up to lend a hand. In the collective effort, the Millers’ belongings were removed in one day.
Keigen Swan has lived in Ravenna since first grade, after his family moved from Norton Shores.
Ravenna is home to him. He loves to play football and baseball in the Bulldog blue, but it’s more than that.
“It’s like one big family – everybody knows everyone …,” Swan said. “I don’t know, I just pretty much love everybody in this town.”
Ravenna athletic director Kyle Jawor understands. Jawor said that even as an outsider, he learned quickly that people in the town “get their hooks in you” in a good way.
When others need help, they step up. They’ve done that for Keigen and his family in a moment’s notice.
“We’re always the one to step up and help somebody else, and now having it all back is, like, nothing we ever expected by any means – never in a million years — but Ravenna’s just got that special something. You can’t even say it in words, I don’t think,” Jennifer Miller said.
“It’s just been beyond words. There’s nothing to describe what Ravenna is in situations like this. It’s crazy.”
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