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BC Strong Scholarship honors Marathon bombings survivors

A battle with cancer led to Jack Manning’s losing half his leg to the disease. Today he helps others overcome physical limitations.Craig F. Walker/Globe staff

NEWTON — When Jack Manning was just 8, his parents received devastating news: Their son had cancer and would require rounds of chemotherapy. Ultimately he would lose half his left leg to the disease.

They learned of the illness after he broke his femur at a soccer tryout, while he wasn’t even involved in a strenuous activity, according to Manning, who grew up in Norfolk.

“The bone was just so weak from the tumor,” he recalled in an interview Saturday. “I think I was just kicking a ball, and it snapped.”

Manning missed a year of school and had to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg. But the setback ultimately slowed him down very little.


An athlete since his earliest days, he continued to play sports, competing in both baseball and football as a student at Roxbury Latin School, in West Roxbury where he was a solid student in a rigorous academic environment.

Manning, 19, also has worked to support cancer treatment, while showing others that they can overcome physical limitations. He is preparing for his third ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge to support the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and he counsels young patients and their parents at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Talking to children facing the kind of amputation that he experienced as a child, Manning tells them “you can still be active . . . and not let it limit you,” he said.

His efforts have earned public recognition. In a ceremony Monday at BC, Manning will become the first recipient of the Boston College Strong Scholarship, presented by Jessica Kensky and her husband, 2005 BC graduate Patrick Downes, who were newlyweds when both lost legs in the Marathon bombings.

Manning is a sophomore studying business at BC, where he maintains a 3.75 grade point average while working about 12 hours a week on campus, according to the college.


Manning “couldn’t have been a more perfect fit [for the scholarship] in his character and his drive and what he’s accomplished in life,” said Kensky, 36, in a phone interview.

She and Downes said the scholarship is part of an effort to show others who have overcome a disability the kind of support they received from Boston and around the world after the 2013 terror attack.

“It’s not lost on us that Jess and I, and all the survivors from the bombings, have been celebrated in this very special way, and we’ve had the opportunity to tell our stories many times over,” said Downes, 34, of Cambridge. “That’s not true for most people with disabilities.”

The scholarship is also part of an effort to make the college more inclusive and more navigable for people with physical limitations, he said, and to build a community of support and mentorship.

“We want to send a message that not only does BC welcome people of all ability levels, but we also want to support them in their academic endeavors,” Downes said.

The idea for the scholarship, which honors Downes and Kensky, came from a tight-knit group of college friends who had rallied to support the couple after their devastating injuries.

“We were trying to think about how we could pay forward all the love and generosity that Patrick and Jess got in the wake of the bombings,” said Michael Hundgen, Downes’s best friend from BC and senior-year roommate.


Initially, the friends envisioned a one-time scholarship, but as they considered their plan, they decided they could do more lasting good by building an endowment that would keep granting scholarships to students well into the future, according to Hundgen, 34, of Glendale, Calif.

They began fund-raising shortly before their 10-year class reunion, with the goal of collecting $250,000. The effort then grew after Downes announced his plan to run in the 2016 Marathon on a prosthetic leg, Hundgen said.

“So many of the people we were close with at BC were part of the core first round of people who gave, and that sort of became more and more and more,” said Hundgen.

After collecting contributions from almost 1,000 donors, they have garnered about $400,000 to date, he said.

“It’s amazing how generous people were,” Hundgen said. “I think it speaks to people really wanting to make something good out of something really bad that happened. I think it also speaks to what inspirational people Patrick and Jess are.”

The largesse of the fund’s supporters will allow many students to benefit from the program, eventually building a network of donors and recipients — a support system that will ease some of the burden of living with a disability, a challenge that Kensky and Downes know all too well.

“The city wrapped its arms around us, and it’s still been really hard. It’s still been exhausting,” Downes said. “I don’t know how you do it with anything less, but we are very conscious of the fact that most people do.”


For Manning, as the first recipient, it is an opportunity to show other young people that physical limitations don’t determine the course of a life. He expects to see the program expand to reach more students.

“They raised a lot more money than they even hoped that they could, so I think it will continue to grow bigger than their original expectations and become better than they could have hoped,” he said. “Hopefully this helps a lot of people.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.