IOWA CITY — Jordan Canzeri stood in the Kinnick Stadium media room last Saturday wearing a cross around his neck and a bracelet that read “I’m With Jackson” over his right wrist.
Canzeri, a University of Iowa senior running back from Troy, N.Y., articulated every play in the Hawkeyes’ season-opening win, from his 5-yard touchdown run to a 51-yard reception. But his demeanor shifted from matter-of-fact to heartfelt when he described the value of his bracelet.
Jackson Gipe was a vivacious 12-year-old from Burlington, Iowa. Jackson had short, light-colored hair, big glasses and an infectious smile. He lacked an athlete’s aggressiveness, but he had more than enough heart for the people in his life.
“He was the type of kid that would open up a door for someone without being asked to do so,” said Anna Ertz, Jackson’s mother. “He was the type of kid where if there was one cupcake left, he would save it for the girls in the house instead of himself.”
On June 27, 2014, five days after his 12th birthday, Jackson was diagnosed with T Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The cancer progressed so quickly Jackson didn’t stand a chance. He died 47 days later on Aug. 11, 2014.
Canzeri was one of three Iowa football players to visit Jackson in the hospital two days before he died. As the players posed for pictures, Ertz handed Canzeri the bracelet “I’m With Jackson.” Canzeri said he’d wear it on game day. To the family’s astonishment, he did.
“I went to that first game and he got tackled and we saw him wearing Jackson’s bracelet,” Ertz said. “My husband and I were both crying in the stands at a Hawkeye game because he was wearing the bracelet. We didn’t expect him to do so.”
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But that’s not where this story ends. It’s only the beginning of a friendship built from tragedy and forged with love. Canzeri wears the bracelet every day, whether he’s attending class or running the football. None of it was meant for public consumption.
Canzeri and Ertz stayed in touch after Jackson’s death. Canzeri joined Ertz and her family for UI’s annual Dance Marathon for cancer research. They went out to lunch afterward, and Canzeri dissuaded overtures from fans in order to spend time with Ertz’s family.
They met again after Iowa’s spring football game. When the hospital had a memorial service for children who had died, Canzeri was there. Ertz walked from Burlington to Iowa City on Jackson’s birthday this summer to raise money for cancer research. Canzeri met with Iowa City police officers to block off a section of town so Ertz and her family could walk the final miles to reach her goal.
After Saturday’s game and interview session, Canzeri joined the family at their tailgate. He celebrated Iowa’s victory with a barbecue sandwich.
“He’s been a huge part of our grieving process, and I can’t imagine going this last year without having him in our lives,” Ertz said. “I can’t. I appreciate everything that he’s done, and that boy has a huge part of my heart.”
Canzeri sees their interaction as mutually beneficial. He wears the bracelet to remind him of Jackson’s battle with cancer. Canzeri has suffered through torn knee ligaments and other injuries, yet he considers his struggle insignificant when compared with others’ plight.
“It’s just amazing to see the amount of love a family like that can show other people after a loss that they’ve had,” Canzeri said. “Just to see (Ertz’s) strength has been awesome. It’s really helping me out in a lot of ways as well. They may not know that but in times when I was like struggling just maybe in my personal life, just being around them lifted me up again. I just truly feel blessed that I’m able to be a part of a family such as them.”
Canzeri provided comfort and support for Ertz and her family in their darkest moments. His genuine humility stands out.
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“For whatever reason, I think he was brought into our life,” Ertz said. “I don’t know 100 percent why yet. He kind of reminds me of Jackson. There’s something about Jordan ... he’s calm, he’s humble, he’s got the best heart, he’s smart, he’s got manners. For a kid who’s 22, you can’t wait to see what he does with his life. If he’s this good at 22, you just can’t wait to see what he’ll be like when he gets older.”
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