Sunday, May 14, 2023 | 2 a.m.
JoJuan Claiborne has been enrolled at UNLV since December, attending classes as he works toward his master’s degree in cybersecurity.
A former Bishop Gorman football star, Claiborne earned his bachelor’s at UNR, where he was also a standout on the gridiron. In 2021, he started at safety for the Wolf Pack and finished fourth on the team with 62 tackles.
But transferring to further his athletic career wasn’t his primary mission in enrolling at UNLV.
In 2019, Claiborne’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a remission period, the cancer returned in the fall of 2022. Claiborne transferred to UNLV and moved back to Las Vegas.
Claiborne had one year of college eligibility remaining, but he had no idea if UNLV would be interested in adding him to the roster. Football didn’t matter.
“I had to be close to home,” Claiborne says. “Being close to my mom, that’s what was important to me. I was just focusing on getting my degree. I didn’t know where my football career would go.”
Claiborne was born in Georgia, and due to his dad’s military career, bounced between Mississippi and Louisiana before the family finally settled in Las Vegas. His mom, Juan, was a registered nurse and got a job at University Medical Center.
While JoJuan developed into a premier football recruit, his mom kept him focused on the bigger picture.
“She was always big on grades,” JoJuan says. “She would always say, ‘If your grades are not right, you’re not playing football.’ But at the same time she was one of my biggest supporters.”
After helping Gorman to a pair of state championships, JoJuan earned a scholarship to UNR. He was in the middle of his sophomore season when Juan was hospitalized with stomach pains; tests revealed a cancerous growth on her pancreas.
Doctors began radiation and chemotherapy treatments immediately, but she waited two weeks for JoJuan to return to Las Vegas so she could break the news in person. She couldn’t bear to do it over the phone.
“It was hard on all of us,” Juan says. “He was sad. I think he wasn’t sure what it was and why it was happening.”
JoJuan attended some chemotherapy appointments with his mother, which helped him understand what she was going through, but eventually he had to head back to Reno when classes resumed.
The distance was difficult for Juan, especially on game days. Though Juan had attended all of her son’s games at Bishop Gorman and UNR — home and away — her cancer treatment made travel impossible.
The family received good news one year later, when in November of 2020 Juan was declared cancer free. She began attending UNR games again, and she and JoJuan participated in events to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer.
JoJuan enjoyed his best season in 2021, and though an injury kept him from playing in 2022, he was still planning to cap his college career at UNR. But in October Juan began experiencing discomfort again, and she feared the worst.
Doctors confirmed what she already seemed to know: Her cancer had returned.
As a nurse, Juan was aware that pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all forms of cancer. And with this being her second bout, her odds were even longer.
JoJuan knows it, too. He also knows his mom isn’t going to give up.
“It’s pretty serious,” JoJuan says. “Pancreatic cancer doesn’t have a really high success rate. We’ve been lucky. She has good doctors, and she used to work at UMC, so she knows a lot of people that give input and help us understand how things are going. We’re just going to keep on fighting. That’s all she does — she fights and she fights. That’s where I get a lot of my motivation from.”
Juan says her doctor couldn’t estimate how much more time she has, and she wouldn’t want to know anyway.
“We didn’t talk prognosis,” Juan says. “We talked life. When you think of pancreatic cancer, you think of people who died. Everyone thinks of it like a death sentence. I can’t think of it like that. That’s why I like my doctor; he doesn’t tell me a time frame. Every day I open my eyes is a good day.”
Juan had worked at UMC for more than 10 years but had to retire so she could receive treatment full-time. And JoJuan came home to help.
Juan is currently undergoing chemotherapy every other week, with each round lasting for three days. It leaves her feeling tired and nauseous, and she loses feeling in her fingers. She also experiences pain in her mouth and can have trouble speaking.
She finds ice chips soothing. So one of JoJuan’s jobs is using an ice maker to produce pellets just the way his mom likes them.
“We’ve always been close,” Juan says, “but I think it has pushed us a little closer. He’s attentive. He’ll make me ice — it’s fabulous! I think for both of us it has put a different perspective on life.”
Maybe more important than any tangible duties, JoJuan just wants to be around and spend time with his mom.
“She’s not really able to leave the house often,” JoJuan says. “My role is being there when she wants somebody to talk to. We play a lot of board games and stuff. My dad is fighting as well. It’s not easy to see the person you love going through something like this.”
In the midst of a most difficult situation, JoJuan is trying to stay positive. That means continuing to play football.
JoJuan was recently cleared to resume athletic activity, and last week he announced he would be joining the UNLV football team for the 2023 season as a walk-on. He’s hopeful his final season will bring some sense of closure to his sports career, and it has also provided Juan with a goal.
At some point this season, she wants to head to Allegiant Stadium to cheer on her son — like she always has.
“Absolutely I want to be at his games. I never missed his games until I got sick. Even when he was in high school at Bishop Gorman, we traveled wherever they went. When he was at Reno, I traveled to all their games, home or away, until I got sick.
“I have a lot of things I still have to see. I want to see him play. I’ve got to see my son graduate to get his master’s. I’ve got to see him get married. There’s a lot that I’ve got to fight for.”
JoJuan has been the ultimate teammate in that fight, and he’s ready to keep going.
“I know that she can’t wait to see me back on the field,” JoJuan says. “With it being my last season, she’s definitely ready to be out there supporting. I know she’s fighting for that, and I am too.”
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.