What a journey it's been for one of Newfane's finest.
Jaden Heers etched his name in Panthers' history on Feb. 29, as he was able to capture his first NYSPHSAA wrestling championship. Although he is unsure if the event will be running due to the coronavirus outbreak, Heers also plans to add more to his mat resume as he is slated for the 31st annual High School Nationals wrestling event scheduled for May 19-21 in Virginia Beach.
Heers looks forward to representing New York State as its lone heavyweight.
"It's a pretty good honor to represent (NYS) and have a chance to win it," Heers said of the 285-pound bracket. "(I could) bring back even bigger than a state title. ... It'd mean the world."
But getting to nationals did not seem to be in the cards for Heers when he began his wrestling career as a freshman. Quite frankly, his early childhood nearly crushed that opportunity before it arose.
Heers was adopted as a child by Michelle McKenica, making him the fourth and youngest of all of McKenica's adoptive children. McKenica was able to help save Heers from a life surrounded by troubles, as his biological parents endangered him as a baby with an environment rampant with abuse, drugs and alcohol.
Along with his non-biological siblings including twins, Bobby and Brianna, and sister, Nautica, Jaden and the kids all left Cleveland, OH, with a new family to give them the love needed to thrive. To this day, Heers shared how his family fuels him to push on and never quit.
Noticeably, though, McKenica began raising a family that had four African American children and a Caucasian mother. Yes, taking the kids to the city hospital used to pose a challenge to the family. Yes, there were derogatory statements made towards McKenica and times where many stared.
There was even a public spat that caught the attention of McKenica's kids. But their mother realized it wasn't teaching her kids anything, so she decided not to even reciprocate that negative energy.
The outside world may not have always understood, but McKenica's family always endeared itself to the kids. Growing up as a church family, the kids were always around a lot of loving, accepting people. And more acceptance was to come once McKenica got remarried to her second husband, Randy McKenica.
Heers and Randy bonded over football, as the stepfather glowed over the former's junior season that was highlighted by 1,238 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, nine yards per carry and 67 tackles on D. Heers' senior season was on the horizon and Randy was supposed to be right there as the supportive stepdad.
Until tragedy struck. After a routine gallbladder surgery, Randy's cancer rapidly progressed and he was taken away from the McKenicas just three weeks after his initial prognosis. Heers took the loss very hard and nearly went into a panic.
He took the loss so hard he even considered sitting out of his senior football season. But Michelle's message to her youngest child was to do it because Randy wouldn't want him to give up because of his absence. With potential athletic scholarships and a possible college football career in the balance, Heers listened to his mother and did it for Randy.
Having supportive coaches like Chuck Nagel, John Vosburgh, Chuck Baker and others, Heers had the right people around him when he needed it most. The Panthers' coaching staff even made sure to bring a jersey for Randy's homegoing service.
If you watched any Panther games last fall, Heers would point to the sky after the playing of the national anthem; his subtle salute to Randy to keep his stepdad's spirit with him during the season. And what a season it was; Heers got his second straight All-Western New York selection after leading Newfane to a 5-3 record and its first football division title in 27 years.
Heers felt that Randy's devine touch was what guided him to 912 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, 8.1 yards per carry and 89 tackles. One measure that Heers used during the year was watching old tapes from the 2018 season, just so he could hear Randy's voice again when he was cheering him on in the stands.
Michelle thought what Heers accomplished in football would be his catalyst for wrestling, as he hoped to repeat as a Section VI champ and to atone for not placing in last year's state wrestling tourney.
The senior did so tenfold, securing another sectional crown, knocking off Mike Leibl after losing to him in last year's NYSPHSAA tournament and closing the season with a 46-2 record. On top of the state title, Heers added Niagara-Orleans League wrestler of the year and Section VI Division II wrestler of the year as well.
To think that a sickly child with asthma shook off his early struggles got this far is tremendous.
Heers is just built different than most kids (and no, this is not about him being a 250-pound running back). The senior made sure to hug Leibl before their second state tournament matchup. He's so reserved and shy he didn't even want to be named a captain for football.
But even when Heers didn't see it in himself, coaches like the wrestling team's Matt Lingle were aware of the leadership he brought to the table.
"I think (his family dynamic) makes him certainly a better leader, just how the compassion he has for kids," Lingle said. "He's willing to stick up for the underdog. ... Even though he's the big athlete in town. You wouldn't always know that when you just talk to him one on one. He shows a tender side to him that really kind of comes through with his leadership. He's got an ability to talk down kids when they're angry and upset. He's usually my go-to when a kid's lost a tough match."
One of coolest pieces of Heers heading to nationals is that his security and law enforcement teacher, Dudley Gilbert, heard that he would most likely be unable to attend the event due to his family's financial situation. Gilbert has taken it upon himself to push Heers to get the best out of him in the classroom, so in turn he made sure the senior was able get to nationals.
He planted a seed in Mrs. McKenica's head, after she had been flooded with messages from people wanting to donate in support of Heers. McKenica, who Heers calls his "No. 1 supporter" overall and with wrestling, would then set up a GoFundMe, ensuring that Newfane's state champ could make his way to VA
To think Heers started wrestling to prove to his brother Bobby that he'd be the best wrestler in the family. Now he might have the chance to cement that at nationals.