Mascot, media star and penalty taker: Jack’s story

Paul Severn of the Nottingham Forest Supporters’ Trust has interviewed Claire Groom, mum to Jack Groom, a much-loved Forest supporter with Down’s syndrome.

The recent My City My Shirt diversity campaign was based around a photography exhibition of more than 30 supporters from all sections of the Forest family. One of the star volunteers was Jack Groom. I first met Jack and Claire at the City Ground last year for the photoshoot and was impressed by both his love for Forest, and professional standard modelling for club photographer, Ritchie Sumpter. He certainly knew how to strike a good pose!

Jack was born in 2003, and shortly after his birth his parents, Claire and Steven, were told he had Down’s syndrome. At just 17 months old, Jack was diagnosed with leukaemia, which is more commonly found in children with Down’s syndrome. On his second birthday, after chemotherapy, Jack was thankfully given the all-clear.

After Jack’s birth, his parents were told of the many difficulties they’d face in the coming years, but Claire and Steven approached the task of being parents to Jack with remarkable positivity.

“To me it was about what he could do. We saw challenges as positive milestones he could reach. For example, after going through mainstream primary school there were concerns he might struggle at secondary school, such as the timetable or finding his way around. But he coped really well and now he’s at college learning life skills that will help him become even more independent.”

The importance of Forest and football

Jack was enrolled in the Junior Reds as a baby, but as new parents, following Forest had to take a back seat for a while for Claire and Steven. However, soon enough, Steven signed him up as a mascot and Jack walked out of the tunnel with captain Paul McKenna.

“We weren’t sure how he’d react to the situation, but Jack loved it. He was clapping the fans and he was soon hooked on Forest.”

Jack’s love for football also had remarkable educational benefits. “Jack wasn’t that interested in ordinary books, so he’d read the Forest programme instead! It really helped his literacy. Jack’s numeracy improved as he learnt each player’s squad numbers. Jack is interested in any football team and remarkably often knows which player has which number!”

Football has also helped Jack socially. Sport helps him improve his understanding of rules and he’s become a keen footballer himself. Jack plays for Burton Joyce FC DSActive team, takes part in training organised by the Nottingham Forest Community Trust on Monday nights, and plays with Education FC, which runs a programme for people with additional needs.

And the training has paid off. Jack raised the roof at the Trent End scoring a penalty at a half time shoot out in December 2017, lifting his shirt over his head as he wheeled away in celebration in the style of former Forest defender Eric Lichaj.

Celebrating diversity

My City My Shirt was a campaign that celebrated diversity and underlined that Forest is a club for everyone. Claire contacted the Supporters’ Trust to get Jack involved and the family attended the launch night at the Council House in Old Market Square.

“Jack is now much more widely recognised at Forest matches now. His photo has appeared on the big screens, which he loves. Graham Moran, CEO of the Nottingham Forest Community Trust, gives him a hug after matches and other season card holders have bowed down to him, telling him he’s famous now!

“Jack took the My City My Shirt brochure to show everyone at college – it’s been great for him and it’s fantastic to see that Forest is a club for everyone.”

Due to Covid restrictions, it wasn’t possible for Steve Cooper and first team players to attend the campaign launch as originally planned. However, Jack received a nice surprise when Steve recorded a short video thanking Jack for his support.

“Jack kept asking how Steve knew him! It took a while for him to take it in but it made his Christmas. A few weeks later, we were sitting in the Main Stand as Jack likes to watch the warm-ups. A member of staff spotted us and asked Steve to pop over for a photo with Jack.”

Alongside other supporters with disabilities and their carers, Claire has been involved in meetings organised by the Supporters’ Trust and Level Playing Field, which aim to improve the experiences at the City Ground for fans with disabilities.

“It is eye-opening to see the different challenges people have going to football matches. Disabilities can be seen and unseen and it has been really interesting to hear other stories and experiences, as we work to make Forest even more welcoming for people such as Jack.”