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FTK & FJK: THON Dancers & The ‘Warrior Kingdom’ Rally Around Club Volleyball Player Jesse King

For a few dozen Penn Staters, THON’s Final Four hit much closer to home.

On Sunday evening, Jesse King walked on the THON stage surrounded by friends and family. Arm-and-arm, 20 members of his “warrior kingdom” stood by his side as his mother — and 1986 THON dancer — Wendy shared his story.

Three weeks after THON 2021, 20-year-old Jesse went home for a routine swallowing test after having some nagging issues.

In a matter of hours, his life was turned upside down.

Jesse unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest while on the table and under anesthesia. He was transported to the hospital, and a large mass was found in his chest. He was airlifted to Hershey Medical Center, put on life support, and diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

In a whirlwind of a few days, the King family was approached by Four Diamonds, despite Jesse no longer being a “kid.”

“What’s ironic is, we’re in the adult ICU, and somebody says to me, ‘Four Diamonds is coming to see you.’ And I said, ‘Why is Four Diamonds coming to see us if we’re in the adult service, and he’s 20?’ And I didn’t know then, with as much work as we’ve done for THON, that Four Diamonds goes up to the age of 22,” Wendy said.

Jesse went through six rounds of intensive chemotherapy while in the hospital. While on life support, he arrested and suffered an anoxic brain injury, meaning his brain was oxygen-deprived.

“Three weeks prior, Jesse was raising money for Four Diamonds, and now here we are, a Four Diamonds family,” Wendy said.

Jesse had to relearn to walk and talk on top of numerous other life skills. Each day is a new battle, but Wendy shared the best news you could ask for with the THON community Sunday afternoon.

Two weeks ago, Jesse had a scan, and there is no more active cancer!

“When this happens, you have to lean on your support,” Wendy added. “Our warrior kingdom rocks this house.”

And that it does.

To say Jesse is everyone’s friend would be an understatement. Before writing this story, I quite literally had dozens of individuals I could’ve talked to, many of which were standing by his side Sunday.

The common theme was that Jesse was a warrior and that the warrior kingdom was dancing for him.

Courtesy of Michael Wang

“While it’s sad that he doesn’t get to dance all 46 with us like he would be, all of the club volleyball dancers are doing this for him,” teammate Michael Wang said. “He really is a beacon of hope for so many people, and I’m just so proud of how far he’s come.”

A week after Jesse’s incident, Wang was able to pay him a visit. Reflecting on how far he’s come since then, Wang had two words to describe his friend: strength and resilience.

Courtesy of Michael Wang

“Jesse’s one of my best friends and was supposed to be one of my roommates going into junior year,” Wang said. “He truly embodies the spirit of THON and was always the life of the party.”

Adam Gallagher, another one of Jesse’s closest friends and his club volleyball teammate, attributed his decision to dance in THON 2023 to Jesse.

“I felt like I owed it to Jesse. He wanted to dance,” Gallagher said. “He was our primary THON chair sophomore year. Obviously, circumstances had it that he wasn’t able to this year, but he would have.”

When the guys joined the team, it was primarily for leisure and social connection. Almost immediately, this group of young Penn Staters became family and formed a bond that would carry them through their undergraduate careers. Gallagher credits much of that strong relationship-building to Jesse.

Courtesy of Adam Gallagher

“He was always like ‘Let’s get together. Let’s hang out.’ He always wanted us to be doing something. And that quickly brought a group of us together,” Gallagher said.

For club field hockey’s Sam Krebs, her relationship with Jesse goes back to freshman year of high school in Algebra II. The two paralleled each other ever since, as they both picked Penn State and ended up playing club sports — field hockey for Krebs and volleyball for Jesse.

“Both of our parents went to Penn State,” Krebs said. “We really bonded over that. We had a really close friend group, so we were constantly hanging out with each other. We were always looking out for one another, and he always had a smile on his face.”

When Krebs recalled memories with Jesse, she had to laugh and bite her tongue at first. Safe for THON? Like many of the best college memories…probably not. But hey, that’s how you know it’s real.

Gallagher and Krebs individually acknowledged how special the King family is and that part of their motivation stems from their closeness with Jesse’s family.

When Gallagher stood on Friday night, the King family was right by his side to begin what would soon become a grueling 46 hours. In fact, the entire King family was in town for the weekend.

“They are the most caring, loving, and passionate people about THON,” Gallagher said. “They inspired us, too. [Wendy] wanted to be right there with it as much as possible. We owe it to them just as much as Jesse.”

The Kings continue to do things the Jesse way.

Just as Jesse rallied the volleyball crew, the Kings continue to invite his friends to social gatherings and encourage them to make even more amazing memories.

“Every single time, the King family is so welcoming,” Krebs said. “A lot of the time when they come up for Penn State games, they host all their friends over at their house after football games or whenever they come to visit. Everyone is always having a great time and making memories.”

In life, there are friends and there is family. Jesse was special enough to morph the two together and create strong, everlasting relationships.

For Gallagher, seeing Jesse go through his journey with cancer is when he finally felt the full effect of THON.

“Knowing about THON is one thing, but seeing it firsthand is different,” Gallagher said. “You know what THON’s about…it’s a great cause. Someone reads about it in the paper, and they’re like ‘Oh that’s nice. I’ll give him some money.’ It’s not until you see exactly how they directly affect someone close to you. That’s when you see the gravity of THON.”

You can donate to Club Volleyball Benefitting THON here.

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a washed-up biology grad and former associate editor. Her legacy will live on through stories like “10 Questions With State College Sensation ‘Hot UPS Bae’”. If you’re a STEM girlie, this is your sign to take the leap of faith and learn to write. It’s pretty fun. Colleen misses the hate mail and can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

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