I thought I lost a brother. Instead, I found a family.
Actually, that's not true. They always were there for me. I just had to let them in. It nearly took a tragedy for that to happen.
I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, to my parents, Ivin and Donna Jasper. I have an older sister, Dallas, and a younger brother, Jarren. We are a sports family.
I’m a freshman at Stanford. I play volleyball. My dad is the offensive coordinator for the football team at the Naval Academy. Dallas is on the volleyball team at Saint Leo University. And Jarren, 14, was going to play quarterback on the junior varsity at my old school, Broadneck High.
Jarren … he was my annoying little brother. I would ask a simple question and he would give me some smart aleck remark. Or, he would take my stuff without asking, or follow me around, or I’d have to take him places with my friends. We argued all the time.
If I breathed on him, he’d yell, “Mom, Jaylen hit me!” Then, I’d hear, “Jaylen, don’t touch him again or you’ll be grounded.” Just thinking about the annoying things Jarren did gets me so heated.
Once, my mom sat me down and said, “Jaylen, he’s your brother. You should love him more.”
I’d say, “I do love him, but I don’t always want him around.”
My perspective began to change not long after I came to Stanford in June to take summer classes. During a physical for football, Jarren’s heartbeat was elevated. This was the first alarm bell.
At first, my mom didn’t tell me. I learned about it through my sister. She didn’t want to distract me. I was upset and wondered how she could keep this from me.
Jarren needed surgery to bring down his heart rate. There was no way his heart could work that hard for a long period of time. Still, there didn’t seem to be a huge reason to worry. We were assured the surgery was routine.
In early August, I was in Lake Placid, New York, with the U.S. youth national volleyball team. There were 24 players in camp and only 12 would make the team for the FIVB World Under-19 Championships in Bahrain.
Everything at the Olympic Training Center is under one roof. The dorms are right down the hall from the gym, the cafeteria is just down the hallway from the dorms.
We finished a workout and I went to my room to get my phone. I noticed a lot of texts and calls from my sister. Normally, it’s to complain about something my parents did. I assumed it was one of those things.
I walked toward the cafeteria as I called. She answered, crying and frantic.
“Dallas, what’s going on?”
My body went into shock. I couldn’t speak. I looked around and ran into the first room I saw, a closet with desks and chairs.
“What do you mean? What happened?”
The surgery had gone awry. Jarren’s heart swelled and stopped for 15 minutes. Doctors revived him, but Jarren’s heart was damaged beyond repair.
I was a mess. I put the phone on mute so my sister couldn’t hear me cry -- I don’t like to show emotion much. She’d ask a question, I’d take a deep breath, take if off mute, try to sound calm, put the phone on mute and cry again.
One of my teammates, JT Martin, saw me through the doorway. Without saying a word, he came in, sat down, and put his arm around me. I just sat there and bawled my eyes out.
I tried to keep myself together. I went to the cafeteria. Everyone was around the table. Normally, I’m a fun, easy-going guy. They noticed I was being super quiet. My friend, Sam Lewis, turned to me and said, “Jaylen, you OK?” And then … boom. I break down. Everyone’s thinking, What the hell is going on?
Sam stood me up and walked me outside while JT filled in the coaches. After I pulled myself together and went back in, everyone was crowded around, standing behind me, with their hands on my shoulders.
“Everything’s going to be all right.” “Just have faith.”
We were all fighting for a spot and I was drawing so much attention to myself. I wanted everyone to focus on their own problems, not on mine. But, they all were supportive. They showed me so much love. The head coach, Sam Shweisky, told me I had a spot on the team and sent me home.
When I got to the hospital, Jarren was hooked to a breathing tube, sedated, and was partially paralyzed. He would be on life support for 11 days.
Mom never left his side. She didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t shower. I had to remind her: “You’re not going to be able to help Jarren if you’re not taking care of yourself.” When the doctors tried to kick her out of the room, she refused to leave.
As all this was happening, I began to see things differently. Your parents are your rocks, but there is no roadmap to being a parent, no rulebook or blueprint. They are learning on the fly just like we are. They’re making the best decisions they can at that time.
I questioned some of those decisions. Sometimes, for instance, I felt my dad was more of a coach than a dad. When I was a kid, he asked what I wanted for my life. I said I wanted to play in the NBA. It was exactly what he wanted to hear, and he dedicated himself to help me get there. And he rode me hard.
I always just wanted to have fun. But with my dad, it was different. He woke us in the morning to take me and Dallas to the gym. He tried to teach us work ethic and discipline. And we weren’t buying it. I understood where my dad was coming from, but that didn’t make it any easier.
My dad didn’t often talk about his upbringing. He came from Compton and moved to Watts when he was 8. He joked that he had “the best of both worlds.” That meant drugs, violence, gangs. He literally had to fight for his life. His family – he was the youngest of eight – steered him away from his dad’s car-detailing business where many of his brothers worked, and kept him in school and sports.
Dad wasn’t perfect. He got in his share of trouble, but his world changed when he was a freshman at Jordan High in Los Angeles and tried out at quarterback for the football team. The coach was so impressed he took my dad aside and told him how great he could be. My dad had “potential.” Dad didn’t know what that meant. When he got home, he looked it up.
Something clicked that day. From then on, he wanted more. He became a better student and eventually student-body president. He got a football scholarship to University of Hawai’i, met my mom, and met Ken Niumatalolo, now Navy’s head coach, and they’ve been coaching together ever since.
Ivin Jasper is a self-made man who wanted nothing more than to instill the mentality that brought him out of the ghetto in me and my sister. But we were from the suburbs. We never had to fight to survive. Still, he pushed us and pushed us, and we didn’t quite get it.
After one workout, my dad blew up.
“It’s hard for someone trying to help you when you have no motivation,” he said. “No one is going to hand you anything. You have to work for it. You have to give it everything you have.
“You’ve got to get up in the morning and always be the first one in the weight room, the first one to practice, and the last one to leave.”
To me, he said, “There are going to be other 6-7 kids that are going to jump just as high as you, but if you want to stay ahead, you have to have something extra.”
One problem was that I never really loved basketball. I liked it. I blocked a lot of shots. I played on the best club team in the region and played all through high school. But as my dad observed, he never saw “the dog” come out. He never saw me dunk on somebody or play with passion. To me, basketball became a job.
Volleyball came by accident. My mom promised to take me to the mall if I came with her to pick up Dallas at her high school practice -- Hey, I was in middle school, I wanted to go the mall. The coach needed an extra player and asked if I wanted to join in. I started playing – I wasn’t very good – but it was so much fun. I actually went up for a kill and nailed this girl right in the chest.
After that, I’d try to tag along with my mom whenever she picked up Dallas, hoping they would invite me to play again. There was no boys’ team at my high school, but after my freshman year, a coach named Mike Schwob, who knew our family through Dallas, started a club so his son wouldn’t have to travel so far to find a team, and I joined too.
I loved everything about volleyball. I got the same high as someone would from skydiving or bungee jumping. The rush and the thrill, it was so different than anything I ever played. I noticed myself improving every time I touched the ball.
My dad noticed, too. At a club tournament in Virginia, we were playing for the championship and down five in the final set. My teammates said, “Let’s set Jaylen,” and I scored every point down the stretch to win. I was jumping up and down … I loved it … I wanted to dominate and I was. My dad wanted to see “the dog” come out. Well, he saw it.
As much as I didn’t want to give my dad the satisfaction of knowing he was right, I started to figure it out. I didn’t make the national team, become the No. 1 recruit in the country or get into Stanford by sitting on the couch. But, sometimes, I wish I had something, anything – not as bad as my dad had it – to draw from that would make me so passionate to want to run over everybody.
I may have found it in my brother.
Jarren still was in the hospital when the Stanford fall quarter began. A left ventricular assist device was inserted to pump blood through his heart, forcing Jarren to be plugged into a wall or battery pack until he could get a new heart. No one knew when one would be available. Jarren’s bags were packed, and everyone waited for a phone call that could come anytime.
Move-in day at Stanford was rough. I remember when my sister went away to college, my mom helped put the sheets on her bed and pictures on the wall. I was by myself. I totally understood. My parents needed to be home with Jarren. But it was kind of lonely.
All my stuff – four big bags, a comforter, and a tiki torch thing -- was in the locker room and I had to bring it a half-mile to Stern Hall and carry it up the steps to the third floor. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t know anybody. The first trip, I walked all the way over there, and then I said, “I’m not doing that again.” I called an Uber. The whole time, I’m thinking, this would be a lot easier if my parents were here.
The first week or two of school, with all that was going on back home, I was really stressed. Jarren had returned home after two months in the hospital, his immune system still dangerously low. Everything -- my family situation, volleyball, school -- was so overwhelming. Part of me felt guilty that I left my parents to deal with Jarren’s situation on their own.
My parents took the mattress off my bed and put it on the floor in their room. They didn’t even sleep in their own bed. My dad laid along the top. And my mom slept on the mattress with Jarren. They put a whistle next to his bed, in case he woke up in distress.
My Stanford coach, John Kosty, understood what I was going through and gave me permission to defer my scholarship for a year if I wanted to return home. I remember calling my parents one night. They were in bed and put the phone between them and turned it on speaker. The conversation was mainly us just sitting in silence, but it felt good to have that connection.
“Jaylen, you still there?”
We didn’t even need to speak, just knowing they were there was so comforting. Finally, we started talking about everything, and I just dropped the ball.
“Do you think I should come home?”
My parents refused to consider it.
They said, there’s nothing you can do. It’s all up to the doctors now. Just keep praying, keep us in your thoughts, and always be here for us.
I didn’t know many people at Stanford and kept all this to myself. One morning at the dorm, I met another freshman, Tyler Hong, and we had a great conversation. That night, he stopped by again and we talked until 2 in the morning. We talked about our personal lives and I opened up about everything that was going on, and he was willing to listen.
I realized that when I opened up to people, it really solidified a bond and created a friendship. I wasn’t going around telling random people my story, but if I felt I could trust them, I’d open up. These people are now my best friends. I go to them with my problems and I’m invested in theirs. This was new and scary for me at first, but not anymore.
I know Jarren missed me, because when my mom asked, not long after the surgery and while he still was unable to talk, he nodded yes.
I am so impressed by him. I never sensed he was scared about anything. All the fear came from my family. But Jarren? Nothing. I don’t know if it was a front, but if it was, it was a very good one. He listened to the doctors, he listened to my parents. He took control of the situation, which must be a hard thing to do for a 14-year-old kid whose heart was about to be replaced with someone else’s.
On Sunday, Jan. 28, Tyler and I were headed to San Francisco for some sightseeing. We had just left the dorm on our way to the train station and I was sitting in the front seat talking to the Uber driver when my mom called. I knew something was up.
“Jarren found a donor!” she said. “We’re going to the hospital.”
I felt pure terror. I was happy, but scared. I don’t remember any of the train ride. My nose was buried in my phone, texting my sister, mom and dad.
I learned that even when the doctors say, “We do this all time,” I still feared something would go wrong. Isn’t that what happened the first time? Every possible worst-case scenario … I could not get them out of my mind. My brother’s life was on the line. On the other hand, he’d finally be back on a path to a normal life. He wasn’t going to stay plugged into a wall anymore. I was so conflicted.
For the next eight hours, I was texting every 15 minutes. Has anything happened yet? I was constantly asking for updates. Is the heart there yet? Is he sedated? What’s going on?
I called Coach Kosty that night and told him what was going on. We were already well into our season and we were struggling and the team needed me. But he did everything he could to get me there. I was on a plane Tuesday morning, got in around 2 and went straight to the hospital. To go into the room, I put on full scrubs, with gloves, a mask and a cap.
Jarren still was out, and I sat on the side of the bed, holding his hand.
He started to move.
“Jarren, Jarren,” I said.
He opened his eyes.
After the previous surgery, when he first opened his eyes, they were without focus. He still was disoriented. This time, he actually looked at me and he knew I was there. He just looked at me and I looked back at him. I could see in his eyes that he was happy to see me.
“Hey buddy, how are you?” I asked. “How are you feeling?”
“You have a new heart,” I said.
Jarren started reaching for his LVAD. For months, the wires had been his lifeline. Now, he sensed they weren’t there.
My mom was standing by my side in tears. She was overwhelmed. The surgery finally happened, he was waking up. She was overcome by emotion. The only thing she could really do was cry.
I listened to his heartbeat. I was the first in the family to hear it. It was a miracle.
Jarren’s body has accepted his heart. He still needs regular biopsies to check his status and his immune system remains low, but the operation was a success.
With Jarren at home and doing well, my mom felt like it was safe enough to fly across the country and watch me play. In high school, I never wanted my mom to hug me in public, especially in front of my friends. But, when I saw her before the BYU game, I was so happy to see her. I must have hugged her 20 times. I didn’t want to let her go.
My dad came out a week later. He told me how proud Jarren is of me, how Jarren loves saying, “My brother’s at Stanford.”
So many things were changing. This ordeal had affected all of us and how we treated and understood each other. This all hit home when I received a letter from my dad. Before the season, one of our coaches, Daniel Rasay, invited the father of each freshman to write a letter to their son and the letters would be delivered during the season.
In the letter, my dad explained why he pushed me so hard, and revealed something else -- his pushing only went so far. The rest was me. He was proud of all I accomplished, and especially proud of how hard I worked to get there. It had come full circle.
It’s not often that you get a chance to appreciate your family when they are here, but, thankfully, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve felt it. Every day.
I’m thankful that my dad challenged me and that my mom always placed the needs of her children above her own. I’m thankful for my brother. There used to be weeks where we would barely talk, even while living in the same house. Now, he’s my best friend. We talk every day.
On Saturday, Jarren will watch me play for Stanford for the first time. He was cleared to fly to our conference playoff match at UCLA. I couldn’t be happier. You almost lose somebody and you realize how much they mean to you. It’s terrible to say, but I never realized how much I loved him until he was almost dead.
It’s a shame that it took a near-tragedy to bring a family closer together. But it happened. And I love them. So much.