Never quit. That’s a lesson Chicago Cubs pitcher and cancer survivor Jon Lester has learned, time and time again.
Lester, 32, was diagnosed with lymphoma a decade ago – so long ago it makes him feel old just to be reminded — and he has never quit fighting. Off the field, Lester started the NVRQT (or “never quit”) fundraising campaign to support pediatric cancer research. On the mound, his grit and determination made Lester one of the cornerstones of the Cubs’ first World Series championship since 1908.
“I launched NVRQT in an effort to unite and inspire children battling cancer, and benefit the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (PCRF),” said Lester, who launched NVRQT with his wife, Farrah, in 2012. “Baseball was a great distraction for me when I was going through treatment, so if we can get these kids out of the hospital and over to the ballpark for a day to help get their minds off cancer, I want to make that happen.”
Lester signed a six-year, $155 million contract with Chicago in 2015, after being coveted by Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, a pair of former Red Sox executives with first-hand knowledge of the type of championship mettle possessed by Lester.
When Lester was a rookie with the Boston Red Sox in 2006, an examination for back pain — thought to be related to a previous car accident — led to further tests, which resulted in an early diagnosis of a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma. It was a shocking discovery for a young man seemingly in the prime of his life.
“It was surreal,” said Hoyer, who was an assistant GM with the Red Sox before taking over as GM of the Cubs. “A young, super-talented, strong kid. In this game you expect to talk about UCLs (elbow injuries) and things like that. You don’t expect to be talking about cancer.”
Lester fought through months of chemotherapy at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and battled back to make a stunning return to the Red Sox in less than a year. By October 2007, the 6’4”, 240-pounder from Tacoma, Wash., was Boston’s Game 4 starter in the World Series clincher against the Colorado Rockies.
“I mean, Jon Lester a year later was the winning pitcher in the deciding game of a World Series,” said Epstein. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Fast forward to the 2016 Fall Classic, and Lester was anchoring a championship team for the third time in his post-cancer career — having won two World Series with the Red Sox (2007, 2013) before flying the ultimate “Cubs Win Flag” last year. Following a career year in the regular season (19–5 record, 2.44 ERA and Cy Young runner-up), Lester was lights out in the playoffs, with a 3–1 record and 2.02 ERA over 35.2 innings, including three high-leverage innings out of the bullpen with history on the line in Game 7.
There is no stage too big for Lester, who over the course of his career has established himself as one of the game’s best big-game playoff pitchers. Lester has an innate ability to remain in the moment, with laser-like focus on his next pitch — brushing aside past problems, or outside forces he can’t control.
“It’s made my life as a baseball player a lot easier,” Lester said. “Because at one time it was taken away from me.”
Through the NVRQT campaign, run by Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, Lester is raising awareness and funds for children’s cancer research. He’s also providing inspiration for those who suffer with cancer, a battle with which he is all-too familiar.
“The program has been wildly successful,” Lester said. “The kids are so brave, so inspiring! Here I am trying to make an impact on their life and they’re the ones making an impact on mine. When we set out to give back we never expected there would be a reciprocal effect, but these kids keep me motivated and give me strength.”
To help Jon Lester raise money for pediatric cancer research, visit NVRQT.org