Paschal concludes cancer battle at final home game of the season


Kentucky celebrates Josh Paschal’s (4) first tackle since being diagnosed with cancer during the game against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Kroger Field, in Lexington, Kentucky. Today, Paschal made his season debut after battling cancer. Kentucky defeated MTSU 34-23. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

One of Kentucky football’s slogan’s this season has been “JPon3.” It’s shouted during team huddles while players lift their hands in the air, which are decorated with blue wristbands with “JPon3” written on them.

The phrase originated from Josh Paschal’s battle with malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer Paschal contracted on his foot before the season even started. As the season continued on, players kept wearing their “JPon3” wristbands to remind them of how to fight through adversity when times got tough during practices or games.

“The first time I saw I teared up a little bit, I just wanted to be out there with them but also just because the team means so much to me,” Paschal said after Kentucky beat Middle Tennessee State. 

On Nov. 17 against Middle Tennessee State, Paschal got the to suit up with his teammates and play in a game for the first time since the cancer diagnosis.

In his first game back, as a starter, Paschal finished with one tackle, which came midway through the second quarter. Paschal did not play a whole lot on defense besides the opening snaps, but putting Paschal in the game at the beginning felt right for head coach Mark Stoops. 

“We gave him the start just because we thought it was right and it was good and it was inspiring to the team and fun,” Stoops said.

Paschal’s game against Middle Tennessee capped off what’s been a lengthy recovery process for the sophomore. Paschal said he’s fully recovered from the malignant melanoma, and the only thing holding him back now is the months of football he missed during the recovery process.

Paschal’s battle with cancer began in the summer, not long after he was baptized in April. Paschal noticed what he thought were blisters on the bottom of his foot, and asked the trainers at Kentucky to take a look at them.

When the trainers realized the bumps on Paschal’s foot wasn’t blisters, a surgery was scheduled to get them removed. Initially, the bumps weren’t believed to be a major concern, and Paschal was expected to only be out a couple of weeks.

It was when Paschal went in for his follow-up appointment that he realized he had a more serious problem on his hands.

“I was just going to see if I was going to start walking again, and the main doctor wasn’t there so it was an assistant that told me,” Paschal said. “She was just telling me that she dreaded the moment the whole day and that it was worse than what they thought from the first surgery.”

After it was discovered that the bumps were malignant melanoma, a second surgery was scheduled to make sure anything didn’t get worse. Paschal had the second surgery on August 1, just two days before Kentucky’s media day.

The discovery of the malignant melanoma caught Paschal by surprise, especially considering the fact that no one in his family had any prior issues with the illness. What followed after Paschal’s second surgery was a three-month recovery with no football.

At times, Paschal felt tested.

“My family, especially my mother and my sister, they wrote up a lot of scriptures and put them on my wall, and it was a lot of healing scriptures too,” Paschal said. “Whenever I felt down about it, I just look up to my wall and just get my power from God to just keep going through.”

Paschal’s faith was one of the things that helped him get through the recovery process. The scriptures on the wall helped him feel encouraged about the progress he was making, but playing in a game this season was what he was striving for, and that was never a guarantee.

That’s where Paschal’s faith helped him the most, in believing that good things lie ahead of him, even if it is out of his control.

“I know that it may have not seem like I was ready to play but I just knew that I couldn’t follow my plan, I had to follow God’s plan for me,” Paschal said. “You never know what God’s plan is so you just have to keep going harder and harder every day and just do the things necessary to get to this point.” 

Paschal worked hard during the three months he was absent from the practice field. Since his foot was in a boot during the recovery, Paschal focused a lot on upper body strength and core exercises. 

As time went on, Paschal’s limits slowly became expanded, and he was able to do more and more, opening up the possibility of his returning to the field this season.

“He’s just worked extremely hard, every day he came in here and worked extra, did more than everybody out there,” Kentucky’s star linebacker Josh Allen said.

Paschal returned to the practice field for the first time since the diagnosis during the week of the Georgia game. Paschal practiced in the outside linebacker position, a place where Paschal felt more comfortable and it was easier for him to transition in.

However, at the end of the week, Paschal’s foot had not felt like he or the coaching staff had hoped, so they decided to hold him out for that game.

“That really disappointed him because he was ready to go a few weeks ago, trying to get back for the Georgia game and just wasn’t ready,” Stoops said.

When Paschal returned to practice before this weekend’s game, his foot felt fine, and it had stayed that way throughout the remainder of the week, opening the door to him being active to play against MTSU.

When Paschal arrived at Kroger Field on Saturday, knowing that he was going to play and start, he admitted he felt nervous, but those nerves went away when the game began.

“At the end of the day, it was just football,” Paschal said. “I was just overjoyed just to be back out there.”

After the game, Paschal stayed behind outside of Kroger Field and the Joe Craft Football Training Center to sign autographs for fans who had not gone home yet. 

He stayed and signed footballs, posters and other items until there were no more fans asking for an autograph.

“The fans had supported me through everything, and just to be able to just give them back just a little bit of what I can at the moment was just great,” Paschal said. “They lifted me up through all of this and gave me so many prayers and blessings and all that. It was just a small token to give them that back.”

The fans continuously messaged Paschal and offered their support and prayers, something that motivated Paschal to keep fighting. His teammates also helped him through the tough times, just as any teammate would do for a player battling a major illness.

Paschal said Quinton Bohanna, Harold Lacy, Naasir Watkins, offensive line coach John Schlarman and Josh Allen offered the most support to Paschal. Schlarman is also battling a form of cancer himself, but hasn’t been absent on the sidelines yet this season. 

“Coach Schlarman was going through the same thing– just seeing him so juiced up and energetic, there was a point where I could just look at him and just see so much inspiration for myself to keep being the way I am,” Paschal said.

Paschal will continue to receive amino therapy every four weeks until August 2019. Despite the IV treatments, Paschal is back to playing football and excited to be joining his teammates again. 

“It felt good just to wipe some dust off finally; it’s been a while,” Paschal said.