HEADstrong Heroes – Meet The Vanamans

By Jen Hildebrand

Integrity. Compassion. Unity. Brotherhood. Family. 

Those are the pillars that not only the St. Augustine Prep community stands on, but also the game of lacrosse. It was the game, as well as St. Augustine Prep, that turned Jackson Tinari and Matt Vanaman into family. And when times get tough, family helps each other.

It was the brotherhood of lacrosse that brought the duo to HEADstrong. Approached by the foundation to participate in the newly established Attack Cancer campaign, Tinari immediately knew that he wanted to take part. A fun and interactive way for athletes to have an impact and make their performance count both on and off the field, the goal of the campaign is to have athletes accept pledges for their performance to help families affected by cancer. With the campaign, Tinari realized that he could take his on-field performance and turn it into a vehicle for good and help his teammate and brother, Matt, Matt’s older brother Mike and the rest of the Vanaman family which had been dealt a devastating blow 10 months before. 

Matt and Mike’s father, Bob, was a devoted family man. As an only child, he focused on creating an environment of love and togetherness with his best friend and wife of 22 years, Laurie, and the boys. However, following a family trip to Key West in December of 2019, Bob started experiencing back pain. It continued for several weeks, but since he had worked as a laborer for over 20 years, including 17 years with Northeast Mechanical, he assumed the pain was simply a result of overuse and getting older. 

As time progressed and the pain spread to his stomach, Laurie, a nurse, noticed that Bob had developed a yellowish tint to his eyes. She recognized that he needed medical attention and on February 8, 2020 Bob visited the Virtua Hospital emergency room. There, lab results were consistent with pancreatic cancer. He was transferred to University of Pennsylvania Hospital for evaluation and treatment. Following surgery to insert a stent and beginning treatment, the official, devastating, diagnosis came on February 11th – Adenocarcinoma in the body and the tail of the pancreas: one of the most aggressive cancers, that spreads rapidly through the body. At the time, it was determined that he would need radical therapies and participation in a new treatment trial to extend his life. 

Telling his boys this news was just a bump in the road for Bob, who continued with his daily life. Through regular chemotherapy that included side effects like constant weariness, weight loss and loss of hair, he strove to live as normal of a life as possible. That meant driving his sons, participating in social outings and his ultimate pleasure, watching the boys play lacrosse. 

Lacrosse was life for the Vanaman family. Matt took it up casually in the third grade and started playing competitively the following year. Following his younger brother, Mike took up the sport in seventh grade. After that, the family dedicated much of their free time to champion the sport. With no background in lacrosse, Bob readily took up the challenge, as well, and studied it incessantly. He learned much about the game by watching high school and college games, clinics, rules and lectures on YouTube. He sought the best coaching for his sons and even taught himself the  basics of the game so he could help the boys practice. 

For Bob, lacrosse was more than a sport that he and his boys loved. It was a stepping stone in life and the perfect way to learn life’s lessons. It encompassed everything he had learned throughout his career – discipline, hard work, grit and talent – as a stepping stone to better opportunities. Through lacrosse, both boys were able to attend St. Augustine Prep and commit to continue their careers at the collegiate level, which Bob saw as a better opportunity for both to have a happy and successful life. 

A two-year captain at St. Augustine, Mike received All-State honors and was selected to the All-South Jersey team in 2019. He committed to Wagner College and started at attack his freshman year. Currently a junior at St. Augustine, Matt has been selected as an Under Armour All-American the previous two seasons and in October committed to play collegiately at Robert Morris University. 

In addition to their accomplishments on the turf, the Vanaman’s loved outdoor activities. The family spent their summers in Wildwood, NJ, where Bob taught the boys to surf and both won multiple competitions. He also taught Mike and Matt to snowboard, often taking trips to the Poconos and having fun on the slopes. At home in Sicklerville, they entertained on their patio, which had been built by Bob, and he found peace and serenity spending time by the koi fishpond that he had also built in the backyard. 

Throughout his father’s treatment, Mike was able to return home to visit, while also balancing being a student-athlete and the COVID-19 pandemic. Laurie, the ultimate caretaker, kept Bob safe during the pandemic and Matt was there every step of the way. Unfortunately, Bob’s condition deteriorated in January and he needed around the clock care. On February 7, Bob passed away peacefully surrounded by his family. A family man to the end, as he was dying he reminded his sons to be the best you can in life and to use his passing as “an inspiration to work hard, love your family and be at your best always.”

This spring, thanks to Tinari’s efforts, the St. Augustine Prep team will be playing in memory of Bob Vanaman. Designed to provide a support system for the family’s emotional and financial well-being, money raised through the team will go directly to the family in Bob’s memory. As the campaign was set up prior to his passing, Bob was incredibly touched by the outpouring of love and support not only from the local lacrosse community, but also the foundation, as a whole. The Vanamans are honored and proud to be part of the Attack Cancer campaign and feel a kinship with other HEADstrong families dealing with the same things they are going through – heartache, despair and loss.

“Mr. Vanaman was a marvel of a man and an inspiration to so many in the Prep community and beyond,” Tinari said. “His dedication to his sons’ lacrosse careers and support of our team was much admired not only by friends and family but also by all who witnessed his constant presence on the sidelines.”

To support the Vanaman family, click HERE