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On Sports

Peyton Manning and J-Mac form a special connection

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Rochester Business Journal
February 9, 2016

Peyton Manning raised the Lombardi Trophy amid a celebratory confetti blizzard Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Some 2,300 miles to the east, a young man wiped away tears. Jason McElwain, better known to people around the block and around the globe simply as J-Mac, couldn’t have been happier for his hero.

Ten years ago, shortly after the autistic student basketball manager inspired the world by scoring 20 points in four minutes for Greece Athena High School in his only varsity game, J-Mac met Manning at the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s Day of Champions dinner. A bond was formed between the two; a bond that, in its own way, was every bit as special as the ones the future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback had made with his football receivers.

Manning received a thunderous ovation from the 1,200 dinner-goers that April night at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. So did J-Mac. Only, his was louder. Being upstaged didn’t bother Manning in the least. “J-Mac, I want you to know what an honor it is to meet you,” the quarterback said, extending the right hand that has thrown an NFL-record 539 touchdown passes. “You’ve become an inspiration to millions of people.”

When Manning was done with his speech, he handed J-Mac an envelope. It contained an invitation for him and a friend to attend the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp and tag along with Manning. For the next four summers, J-Mac and his buddy, Steve Kerr, got an up-close-and-personal look at one of the greatest players in football history.

“Peyton’s dedication is unbelievable,’’ J-Mac said the other day from the Wegmans on Latta Road, where he’s spent 10 years working in the bakery. “I got to see how much he studies. I got to see him interact with his teammates. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in sports. I’m so happy for him.”

This had been a challenging season for Manning; a season in which the 39-year-old had to deal with declining skills, debilitating injuries and sketchy accusations about HGH use. But he persevered, and managed Sunday’s game well enough to help the Denver Broncos upset the Carolina Panthers, 24-10, in Super Bowl 50.

“It was a great moment watching him celebrate,’’ J-Mac said. “It reminded me of when we finally won the sectional title in 2006 after so many times just coming up short. Peyton has had some tough times in the post-season, but I think he put that behind him. He’s got two Super Bowl rings now. That’s not too shabby.”

Like many, J-Mac hopes Manning hangs up his cleats, goes out on top. “He’s not the same player he was and that happens even to the great ones,’’ he said. “I’d like to see him retire. He has nothing left to prove.”

J-Mac calls Manning his hero. I’m sure if you asked Manning, he’d say the same about his former training camp ball boy. The five-time Most Valuable Player undoubtedly would be inspired by what J-Mac has accomplished since. His self-described “hotter than a pistol” performance that went viral and shocked the world that February night a decade ago wasn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot.

That game reminded J-Mac and the rest of us that dreams do come true, even for those facing the challenges of autism. It also inspired him to establish new goals. He had competed in cross country at Athena, but gave up running after high school. A few years ago, he started jogging again, and began dreaming about competing in marathons. Mission accomplished. This April, he’ll run in his third Boston Marathon. He hopes to cross the finish line in less than two hours and 55 minutes.

J-Mac’s other goal is to become a head coach at the high school or college level. He hasn’t had to travel far to find inspiration and a mentor. Jim Johnson, the big-hearted man who gave J-Mac a chance to experience his shining moment on the basketball court, added him to his coaching staff several years ago. “The reason I wanted to give him a chance to play was because of his incredible dedication to our program,’’ Johnson said. “And he’s been every bit as dedicated as a coach. He’s great with the kids, and sets a great example. Nobody works harder. It’s been such a treat to see him grow and develop as a person.”

Johnson has guided Athena to three consecutive sectional titles, and appears well on his way to a fourth. Entering this week, his team had lost just one game and was ranked first in the latest state scholastic basketball poll. J-Mac was around for Johnson’s first title 10 years ago. Surprisingly, when asked his favorite moment from that season, the assistant coach mentions winning sectionals, not his life-altering game.

“Basketball’s a team sport, so it’s about how many games you win, not about how many points and rebounds you get,’’ he said. His words are sincere. He’s not just repeating something he’s heard. I covered that night Athena won it all at the Blue Cross Arena. I vividly remember him bawling with joy after the final buzzer sounded.

This has been quite a week for the 27-year-old J-Mac. AutismUp honored him and his coach Thursday at its Opportunity Awards banquet, featuring Roy Firestone, an Emmy Award-winning interviewer and performer. The luncheon raised money for AutismUp and the Athena basketball program.

The incidence of autism has been on the rise for several decades. In 2006, the year J-Mac graduated, one in 110 was diagnosed. Today, that number is a staggering one in 68, an increase of 55 percent.

“Success is different for everyone living with autism,’’ said Lisa Ponticello, the marketing and development director of AutismUp. “Each individual with autism has his or her own unique abilities and to harness these, needs individualized support and opportunities. It is my hope by celebrating the opportunity given to J-Mac by Coach Johnson, others will be inspired to do the same for someone living with autism.”

Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak talks sports weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 95.7 ESPN, AM 950 or on-line at

2/12/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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