Over 750 runners take part in fund-raising race between Worthington schools

Drew George (wearing a cap) receives a hug from his aunt Martha Gallahue after completing the run



Usually painting the rock that guards the entrance to the Thomas Worthington High School football stadium in school colors other than the Cardinals’ red and blue is considered a hostile act.

 However no one seemed to mind when half of the rock was painted a shade of Worthington Kilbourne blue on June 21. The rock redecorating was part of the #DrewStrong/GussStrong run, a 4.23 mile race between the two rival high schools.

 “We’re intense rivals when it comes to sports and academics,” says Drew George, a Kilbourne sophomore who was the race’s benefactor. “Cancer definitely changes things. It’s an amazing feeling to see the two schools come together like this.”

 Both schools’ baseball teams have been touched by cancer. George, a starting shortstop for the Wolves as a freshman, was diagnosed with leukemia on Nov. 7. Former Thomas baseball coach Stephen Gussler Jr. died on May 27 at 43 after battling Stage IV colon and rectal cancer since 2008.

The race was part of a day of events to benefit both George and the Guss Strong foundation. After the race, a golf outing and a dinner and a silent auction were held at the York Country Club to raise money for Guss Strong.

 In addition to supporting the Gussler family, the Guss Strong Organization wants to nurture other area non-profits that are helping Worthington families who have been impacted by cancer.

 Stephanie Donaldson, the race director and founder of the Drew Strong Benefit Fund, was approached last February by members of the Guss Strong Organization to join forces for the day’s activities.

 “They essentially said ‘Can we adopt you?’” Donaldson says. “A point-to-point race between the two high schools is something that had never been done before. It seemed to be a perfect way to draw both fund raising groups together.”

 Thomas senior Jonathan Kissel placed first in the men’s competition in 23 minutes, 45 seconds, edging out Jonathan Allen (23:46) and Andrew Craig (24:07). Anne Steele won the girls race in 27:11 finishing ahead of Anna Klompen (29:55) and Cheyenne Buckingham (29:56).

 Gussler, who won 262 games and two district championships while coaching the Cardinals for 16 years, probably would’ve liked the fact that Kissel came in first.

 Kissel quit baseball his freshman year to concentrate on running, but the runner says Gussler was always interested in how he was doing in cross country and track.

 “To be a part of an event for Coach Guss is kind of surreal,” Kissel says. “(Gussler) had like five men’s worth of strength in one guy. He touched so many of my friends.

 “After every track meet, I’d go down to the basement (a part of the Thomas Worthington athletic complex) and I’d tell him how I did. He was always excited to hear that.”

 George only met Gussler on the field before a Thomas-Kilbourne baseball game but received several text messages from the coach when the sophomore was in the hospital.

 “He told me to ‘just keep fighting. I know what you are going through,’” says George who completed the race near the back of the pack. “He was a huge inspiration to me. He kept me on track to where I needed to be.”

 Running alongside George was Zach Farmer, an Ohio State freshman pitcher who was diagnosed with leukemia this spring, and Eric Gussler, Stephen’s brother.

 “(Ohio State baseball coach Greg) Beals called me and told me about Drew and his situation,” said Farmer, who also recently found a perfect match from a bone marrow donor. “We jumped on board (for the race).

 “The main thing I’ll take away from today is the togetherness. All of these people are all together and happy to be here to support Drew.”

 Farmer knows how important support can be. The Piketon lefthander was off to a 6-4 start with a 3.28 earned run average when he began feeling ill. At first he thought he had mononucleosis but a blood test revealed that he had acute myeloid leukemia.

 Farmer says his teammates have been instrumental in helping him recover. “When you hear that word ‘cancer,’ you think why is this happening to me? I just didn’t want to believe it,” Farmer says. “Being an athlete is very helpful. The support I’ve gotten from my teammates has been amazing.”

 Like Farmer, George found a perfect bone marrow match. The Kilbourne student didn’t have to look too far to find it. During the first round of chemotherapy, George learned his sister Tori was a perfect fit.

 “My sister knew that she was going to be a match,” George says. “When we were younger, we fought a little bit but that’s normal for a brother and a sister. But we’ve grown tighter. She saved my life.”

 George has been home-schooled since he went into the hospital last November and expects his second semester of his sophomore year this summer. He hopes to return to Kilbourne as a junior sometime in February 2015.

 The sophomore learned one of the keys to beating cancer is to remain upbeat, a lesson he took away from all the text messages from Gussler.

 “No one wants to be told they have cancer. You think about all the possible things that could go wrong,” George says. “You have to stay positive. You have to think ‘I’m going to beat this. I can do it.’”

Drew George (left) says his sister Tori (right) “saved my life.” Tori was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant