Florida Gators Punter Jon Gould; Walk-On Success Story, Cancer Survivor
By Scott Carter, // March 19, 2016
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA (FloridaGators.com) – He keeps his most prized possession with him at all times.
As Jon Gould navigates his first spring practice with the Florida football team, you would never know he has it on him while he participates in drills with fellow punter Johnny Townsend. But after practice, as Gould begins to tell his story, he shows you the lime green ribbon.
To do so, he must remove his No. 97 jersey and raise the right sleeve of his undershirt.
“I’m definitely lucky,” Gould said. “Not everyone is as fortunate.”
The 18-year-old Gould, a redshirt freshman from the Baltimore area, then begins to share the ordeal that led him to acquire the tattoo designed across his right shoulder.
Gould’s mother, Tricia Petrisko, offered no resistance when Jon told her he wanted to take a dip in body ink. In fact, she went with him and got one, too, a lavender ribbon on her wrist.
“The kid has been through so much,” Tricia said. “If he wants to get a stinking tattoo he can get one.”
Gould was your typical fifth-grader eight years ago. He was a good student, had a fun sense of humor and liked to play sports with other kids around the neighborhood.
There were no signs he would soon be in a fight for his life.
“We had no idea there was anything wrong,” his mother said.
Tricia and Rob Gould, Jon’s father, were split up in the spring of 2008 when Tricia and the two kids — Jon’s older sister, Rebecca, is a UF junior — made a trip from their Maryland home to Gainesville to visit Tricia’s parents over spring break. When they returned home Jon visited his father for the weekend.
Jon complained he wasn’t feeling well and his father noticed he lacked the normal energy of a vibrant 10-year-old. Instead of sitting up and talking on car rides, Jon often slipped into the backseat to sleep. Rob Gould took him in for a doctor’s visit for what he figured was a sinus infection based on Jon’s symptoms.
“I never thought I would have to depend on my alma mater to actually treat him,” said Rob, a graduate of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.
“It has certainly changed our lives.”
During the doctor’s visit, nothing unusual was revealed initially. Jon received some medicine to alleviate his symptoms and told to rest. However, as they were about to leave, Rob mentioned to the doctor Jon had been experiencing night sweats around his neck.
The first red flag was raised. Instead of going home, Jon was sent to get X-rays and images of his neck and chest.
Later that Saturday afternoon, Tricia received a call from Dr. Michael May, the family’s long-time pediatrician. Tricia, a pediatric nurse who works in the same office as May, struggled to accept what the X-rays had revealed.
“All of Jon’s lymph nodes in his chest were like the size or oranges,” she said. “I just remember falling to my knees. I mean, he went in for a sinus infection.”
More tests revealed Jon’s spleen was also enlarged. While doctors had a good idea of what was going on inside Jon’s body, it took them longer than usual to confirm a diagnosis. Jon even underwent a painful bone marrow extraction in an attempt to confirm cancer cells.
“The most pain I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.
The eventual diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which according to the Mayo Clinic, is a cancer of the lymphatic system, a part of your immune system.
Jon was old enough to understand something was wrong but young enough to not fully grasp the potential dangers of the disease.
“My parents were pretty upset and everyone around me was upset,” Jon said.
“From what I remember, I was never really freaking out. I was pretty positive.”
Doctors devised a treatment plan that included chemotherapy five days a week, Monday through Friday. For the next six months Jon underwent extensive treatment that included chemotherapy and radiation. He wore a mask to school to protect his immune system. He lost his hair soon after he began chemotherapy. He suffered a setback early in his cancer treatment when he broke a bone in his leg, requiring a hospital stay.
Still, he weathered the drastic change in lifestyle with a resilient attitude.
May, who is assistant chairman of pediatrics at Howard County (Md.) General Hospital and Jon’s primary care physician, worked with doctors in the pediatric oncology unit at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center to monitor Jon’s response to treatment.
“He was very positive from the beginning in terms of his outlook in dealing with what was a very unexpected and very daunting diagnosis,” May said.
“He was helped tremendously by the medical expertise of his mom and by the support of his whole family.”
Everything the Goulds experienced starting in the spring of 2008 culminated with a special moment now recognized by that tattoo on Jon’s shoulder: Oct. 15, 2008 — the day Jon’s cancer was declared in remission.
Jon still returns annually for checkups to make sure his body is free of the disease. Last week Tricia talked to him about his next appointment, which needs to be scheduled sometime over the summer while he is home for break.
Jon has clearly moved well past the diagnosis and found success. His family has prospered, too. Still, in some ways it’s always there, especially around the time Jon has to go in for his annual exam.
“We celebrate each year,” Tricia said.
The final part of Gould’s unlikely path to a roster spot with the Gators is not as significant as his victory over Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Still, it’s a good story.
Gould played lacrosse and soccer and ran track growing up, but prior to his junior year of high school, he had never played organized football.
“He literally woke up one day and said he wanted to teach himself, that he wanted to be a punter,” Rob Gould said.
“The kid is an amazing kid. He is very resilient, and when he puts his mind to something, he goes at it with a vengeance.”
He spent the summer between his sophomore and junior year punting to whomever he could find to catch the ball and throw it back. His stepfather David was often his practice partner and quickly learned to move the car out of harm’s way as Jon’s leg got stronger.
When tryouts at Howard County (Md.) High arrived, Gould made the team. He didn’t play at first, then got in for a snap and had a kick blocked.
By his senior season Gould was the starting punter and was named All-County and honorable mention All-State. Some smaller schools showed an interest. Jon applied to the University of Delaware and recieved an academic scholarship, but in his heart he wanted to play at Florida.
A long-shot, sure. But one he was determined to pursue.
Gould showed up at walk-on tryouts early last season. He remembers watching Florida’s win over East Carolina from the stands in the second game of the season. The next week he was at practice, part of the football team.
He added another important date to his list: Sept. 8, 2015. That is the day he got a call from the football office telling him he had made the team as a walk-on after open tryouts that included more than a dozen players. He got to share the moment with Rebecca, a UF dietetics major who has volunteered with the sports nutrition staff over the past year.
“What are you talking about?” Rob asked when his son first called with the news. Soon, his dad was a believer.
“He was laser-like focused,” Rob said.
“We’ll see what happens. He’s got a really good role model in front of him in Johnny Townsend. Going back to what he experienced, that changed his life. That will forever have changed his life.
“Several years ago had we not caught it early enough, he might not be living out his dream. At the end of the day, anything that happens here on out is just a blessing for him.”
Father, mother and son all agree on that. Jon has acquired several labels over these past eight years: cancer survivor, football player, high school graduate and college punter among them.
Dr. May has one that perhaps seems most fitting.
“He is a true success story,” May said. “He could not have weathered what was a devastating diagnosis any better than he did.”