As J.J. Lasley lines up for the kickoff at Saturday's 37th Shrine all- star football game at the Rose Bowl, his thoughts likely will focus on a 7-year-old boy stricken with a strange hip ailment that frequently leaves its victims crippled for life.
Lasley, a versatile player from Crespi High, will join the state's top 64 recently graduated seniors in a game that serves as a fund-raiser for the Shrine Hospital for Crippled Children in Los Angeles. That charity holds special meaning for Lasley because the afflicted 7-year-old etched in his mind is none other than himself.
Lasley spent nearly three months in the hospital after contracting a rare condition in which the hip joint in his right leg became infected after he suffered a minor bruise. His mother Susan grew frantic when her son's fever refused to break. She rushed J. J. to UCLA, and the symptoms at first mystified doctors, who feared for his life.
The doctors eventually performed surgery to drain the joint and treated him for 2 1/2 months as he lay flat on his back, isolated from his family save for his mother, who lived at the hospital with him. The cost for such attention was prohibitive for Susan, a single parent who has lived on welfare much of the past 15 years.
The Shriners picked up the tab.
"If any child belongs in this game, it's J. J.," Susan said.
The crisis was averted but J. J.'s prognosis was not encouraging. Doctors warned Susan that her son's leg would atrophy and that it was unlikely he would walk again. But he defied that prognosis by not only walking but becoming a three-sport athlete at Crespi.
Lasley, 6-2, 200 pounds, has signed a letter of intent to play football at Stanford. He originally was selected to the South team as an alternate but was added to the roster last week. It was only then, after telling his mother about the game, that they remembered the Shriners' role in his recovery.
"I almost died when I first got the disease," Lasley said. "I feel honored to play in the game because it's so prestigious, but when I remembered about the Shriners, I thought, 'God, I owe these people something.' I'm going to play as hard as I can."
Lasley's football career started shortly after his stay in the hospital. He carried the faith of a 7-year-old who knew no better. He shocked doctors by walking into their offices just months after his release from the hospital.
"They were surprised I could walk so I told them I could run," Lasley said. "I ran down the hall and it hurt but I ran as fast as I could. I fell down, but I got back up and kept running."
Lasley progressed in his recovery and pestered his mother to register him for a youth football team. That fall, less than a year after the surgery, Susan took him to his first football practice.
"I wasn't scared about him playing football," she said. "Because I almost lost him I felt he deserved a chance. He wanted to play so bad that I thought if he could find some happiness in football, I'd be happy."
Youth football started Lasley's Valley connection. Because his mother believed the youth leagues were better in the San Fernando Valley, she drove J. J. from their home in Los Angeles to Van Nuys. When they went a year without a car, J. J. continued to commute to the Valley, making each transfer with his mother on the bus.
Five years after his start in football, the two moved to Van Nuys. Shortly thereafter J. J. decided to attend Crespi, an all-boys parochial school in Encino. He didn't let the $3,000 tuition deter him from applying. After a convincing interview and a look at J. J.'s straight A record in grammar school, Crespi granted him a four-year scholarship.
"I thought, 'Wow, I got a lucky break.' I wanted to make the most of it," he said.
Crespi and Lasley proved a good match. He earned six varsity letters in football, basketball and track and helped the Celts win the school's first Big Five Conference football championship in 1986. He graduated fourth in his class and had only four Bs in four years. Factoring in credit for honors classes, he graduated with a 4.2 grade-point average.
Larry Cummings, a Crespi assistant football coach whose three sons are Crespi graduates, points to Lasley as a success story.
"He was single-minded in following his goals and really matured here. Kids at Crespi don't embarrass themselves. He did well by Crespi and Crespi did well by him," he said.
Still, Lasley remembers himself as a 14-year-old freshman, intimidated by the image of a private school. Fear motivated him to succeed.
"I had always gotten straight As but I was scared to death. I sat in the front row in every class. I scared myself into getting good grades.
"I'll probably be twice as scared at Stanford. I talked to a player when I visited there and he told me to forget about getting anything higher than a C in English. He said Stanford professors don't believe freshmen can write better than a C."