Before exploding as a reliable return ace and six-point aerial option for state champion Chatsworth (Calif.) Sierra Canyon last season, 2019 prospect J.J. Hernandez drew his inspiration in the summer of 2016 through his older brother, who nearly lost his life.
On the eve of finals at Lafayette College, Kaizer Butler, who graduated from Sierra Canyon in 2015, began to feel not quite right. He'd missed all but three games of his freshman season at Lafayette due to a season-ending shoulder injury, but this was different. He in quick succession, he endured a sinus infection, an ear infection and chronic body aches that culminated in acute kidney failure and pulmonary edema -- his lungs had been filled with blood.
“He was hospitalized and was very close to dying,” Hernandez told Scout.
Added Butler: “This is the first time I've had it. Officially discovered it last June. No cure for this bad boy.”
That bad boy is a rare autoimmune disease, known as granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA).
Butler had difficulty studying for his finals as he waged his war with his own immune system. Then, as his health continued to deteriorate, he went home to Chatsworth, and was placed on life support. The once former Pac-12 recruit was on death's doorstep.
The disease that could have crippled Butler, preventing him not only from ever playing football again, but from also living a normal life, has started to lose its battle against the former Trailblazer, giving an extra boost to Hernandez, as he starts to tackle his own recruitment, and begins the chase for another state championship with SCHS.
Butler says he’s working out, taking strong medication and is now expected to return to the field this upcoming season at Lafayette. GPA is treatable, he adds, but it has no known cure.
Hernandez – who had 1,019 all-purpose yards on offense and four interceptions last season for the 16-0 Trailblazers – is thankful for his brother's speedy healing period.
“His recovery and his journey is what keeps me going through hard times, knowing that nothing is impossible and how God works in mysterious ways,” Hernandez said.
At 6-feet and 180-pounds, Hernandez may not have the prototypical size college teams covet out of a wide receiver, and he’s yet to receive any scholarship offers, or letters, but he cites Washington as his dream university. Hernandez is strong in two prominent areas for wideouts: Winning the man coverage battle and showing his versatility. Hernandez uses a double move and strong peripheral vision to stretch the field on long receptions and kickoff returns.
Defensively, Hernandez is not only cerebral enough to know a receiver’s route and when to jump on the football, but he’s confident and physical enough to step into the line of scrimmage and stop the run, winning the leverage battle against running backs.
“I am someone who can play many positions from corner to an outside linebacker or from slot to an outside receiver," Hernandez said. "I can fill in on any spot and learn everything about it and be successful at it. Being versatile is one of my specialties.”
Butler is clearly a fan of his younger sibling’s game.
“I love watching J.J. play because I know he is comfortable with himself out there and completely himself," Butler said.
Something I wish I would've been able to do at the time. I admire him."
Along with the bond he shares with the former Trailblazer standout Butler, Hernandez has another group of brothers in his Sierra Canyon teammates, who were honored recently by the Los Angeles City Council for their 2016 state title run.
“Our journey to winning state was the best season I've had ever in all my years of football," Hernandez said. "I’ve never have had a tight bond with a team like I did with the state championship team and that's what makes SC special to me, because we are a family not a team,” Hernandez said. “Our team is fired up to keep our run going for three years in a row winning a CIF championship and hopefully back-to-back state championships.”
But Hernandez isn’t just motivated to bring back more state accolades to the private school. His additional football fire from within comes from honoring Butler’s brave fight.
“I think the fact that I play for my older brother makes me who I am and defines what I do on the field,” Hernandez said. “I think of myself as someone who can always be trusted to make a play no matter what the situation is.”