The Wildcats linebacker's journey took a detour as he battled cancer
It might have been the loudest cheer in stadium history for a seemingly meaningless third down stop.
But while Kentucky football’s Nov. 17 game versus Middle Tennessee was already well in hand when sophomore Josh Paschal tackled Blue Raiders running back Terelle West 13 yards shy of the first-down marker with the Wildcats leading 24–7 in the second quarter, the play was anything but meaningless.
It marked Paschal’s first tackle of the season in his first appearance since being diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on the bottom of his right foot in July.
“The fans have supported me through everything,” Paschal said after waiting to sign autographs for the dozens of fans who stuck around to wish him well after the game. “Just to be able to give them back just a little bit of what I can at that moment was just great, because they lifted me up through all of this and gave me so many prayers and blessings.”
Just six months earlier, the idea of Paschal being greeted with a horde of fans wanting autographs after a Kentucky win would not have been that unexpected a sight.
A four-star recruit out of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Maryland, Paschal had shown glimpses of his immense potential as a freshman with 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 13 games, including one start, in the 2017 Music City Bowl.
Kentucky coaches were so committed to finding a spot for Paschal on the field in 2018 that they moved him from outside linebacker, where both senior starters, including eventual National Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen, were set to return, to defensive end in spring practice. He spent much of the summer bulking up to play with his hand on the ground against some of the Southeastern Conference’s best offensive linemen and was poised to take over a starting job there.
But just days before the start of preseason camp, UK trainers found a lesion on the bottom of Paschal’s foot.
Surgery was scheduled to remove the spot, and Paschal was expected to return to the field as soon as the wound healed. But when Paschal returned to his doctor’s office for a follow-up appointment after the procedure, he received some earth-shattering news.
Tests on the lesion had come back positive for malignant melanoma.
“I thought it was just a blister or something like that,” Paschal says. “It caught me off guard a lot, but my family, especially my mother and my sister, they wrote up a lot of scriptures and put them on my wall. Whenever I felt down about it, I just looked up to my wall and just got my power from God to just keep going through.”
Shortly before the diagnosis, Paschal had been baptized in front of teammates and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.
His faith has proved vital as he has weathered the storm of three surgeries and monthly immunotherapy treatments that will last through August.
“Nobody wants to have to deal with this, but I tell you if there’s anybody who’s suited to deal with adversity like that and stay positive and kind of battle through it, it’s Josh,” says Andy Stefanelli, Paschal’s former coach at Good Counsel. “He’s just a great kid. He’s got a great outlook on life in general. He just kind of attacks things with a positive attitude. I know early on his responses to me were very upbeat and positive. Especially early on, I don’t think anybody kind of knew where this thing was going.”
As his foot began to heal even as he continued the immunotherapy treatments, Paschal set his sights on returning to the field in what was turning out to be a historic season for the Kentucky football program.
In September, the Wildcats ended a 31-game losing streak to Florida. After the game, Stoops delivered an emotional speech in the locker room, awarding a game ball to offensive line coach John Schlarman, who was also battling cancer, while reserving another one for Paschal, who had not been able to make the trip to Gainesville.
Kentucky teammates broke down every huddle with “JP on 3” in support of Paschal and credited him and Schlarman for inspiring them to a 7–1 start and No. 9 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff committee’s top 25.
“It made it easier just because I knew they were doing what they should be doing, which is winning,” Paschal says. “And I was proud of them. It would be kind of selfish of me to say it was hard for me because I’m so happy and proud of the way that they came out and the way they played the whole year, just how they fought through adversity.”
Paschal began targeting the Nov. 3 game against Georgia for his return, but a minor setback in his rehab prevented him from playing in what amounted to a winner-take-all game for the SEC East title. Kentucky lost that game and was embarrassed a week later at Tennessee, eliciting fears that the late-season tailspins that had too often plagued Kentucky in recent years might be returning.
But Middle Tennessee represented a convenient reset point for the season, and Paschal was ready to provide the emotional boost the team needed.
When it became clear Paschal would be able to play on a limited basis that week, Stoops decided he should start the game. As his name was read with the other starters on the Kroger Field PA system before the game, the first of many cheers rang through the crowd.
“I’m so proud of that kid, man,” says UK offensive lineman Naasir Watkins, who had graduated from Good Counsel with Paschal. “He’s been challenged with adversity and he kept God in his heart and worked through it, and now he’s got the opportunity to come back even stronger.”
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but Paschal’s return coincided with Kentucky salvaging its season with three straight wins to close the year, including a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State to give the program its first 10-win season since 1977.
His on-field role was limited with just three tackles and one tackle for a loss in the three wins, but the NCAA’s new redshirt rule allowed him to see some snaps while preserving the year of eligibility.
“I always wanted just to work as hard as I can,” Paschal says. “I know it may have not seemed like I was ready to play, but I just knew I couldn’t follow my plan. I had to follow God’s plan for me. You never know what God’s plan is, so I just had to keep going harder and harder every day and do the things necessary to get to this point.”
Since the end of the season, Paschal has taken the opportunity to share his story in several forms, including an interview with The Today Show. “That was important for me just because I know I’m not the only person that went through that,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of people that are looking for somebody that’s going through the same thing.”
It’s an attitude that surprises no one who saw Paschal’s perseverance in dealing with having his world turned upside down.
“That’s just who he is,” Stoops says. “It’s hard to be around him and not respect him and the way he lives and the way he goes about his business. It does not surprise me. He wanted that from the beginning. If this happened to him, he’s very matter of fact: He’s going to believe that he’s going to get better and improve and beat this, and he’s going to do what the doctors and everybody tell him to do, and then he’s also going to try to help people.”
— Written by Jon Hale
(Top photo courtesy of Kentucky Athletics)