Most sports stories end when there’s a winner and a loser. That, however, is not always the case.
Take this story, for example.
“This story,” says Jake Guthrie, “has a chance to change people by changing their perspective on things.”
Guthrie should know. He was having a rough day last Friday, when he logged on to Facebook and read some good news about a friend of his. Thomas Worthington’s Stephen Gussler, who has battled stage 4 colorectal cancer since 2008, was cautiously optimistic that he was one surgery away from being healthy again.
The next morning, Guthrie still had coach Gussler, or Guss as he is affectionately known, on his mind; so he sent out a tweet. He didn’t put much thought into it. It occurred to him that he’d seen others use the social media platform to try to capture ESPN’s attention. He didn’t really believe it would get him anywhere, but maybe he could try the same thing?
“It just developed into something I wasn’t counting on,” Guthrie says.
Stephen Gussler, who is only in his early 40s, has spent more than a third of those years coaching baseball at Thomas Worthington. For 16 seasons, when the weather started to warm, and the PHWAAAACK sound of ball hitting mitt echoed across the diamond, the Cardinals were his to lead.
“Most people hate the daily grind. I live for it.” -Stephen Gussler
In that time he’s won four league championships, back-to-back district championships, and was named the All-Ohio Division I Coach of the Year in 2013.
He’s also been inducted into the Central District Baseball Coaches Association Hall Of Fame, and the baseball complex at Thomas Worthington is named after him.
Coach Gussler’s impact goes way beyond his resume, though, argues former player Anthony Leahy.
“I think with him, he’s always been more than just a baseball coach,” Leahy says. “On a personal level, he’s always willing to help. It’s not just a baseball relationship for a lot of these kids.”
So true is that in Leahy’s case that Gussler was a groomsman in his wedding.
Leahy is also in the unenviable position of having to step in for the legend as the Cardinals interim head coach. He’s filling in as Gussler recovers from yet another surgery.
There have been a lot of those. There have been many, many rounds of chemo, too, dozens of them. Then there was the grim diagnosis he received from doctors, who gave him 9-12 months to live…
That was a little over a year ago.
“Cancer’s a monster, but I’m a beast!” -Stephen Gussler
“He’s outlived a few different expectancies,” Leahy says, conveying the tone of one who’s actually come to expect the death-defying accomplishments of his mentor. “He keeps blowing through them.”
That toughness is something Leahy hopes to relay to the players this year, when–that is–Gussler isn’t there to do it himself. Coach Guss will still play a role, even if they haven’t worked out all the details.
Both Leahy and Thomas Worthington’s athletics director Scott Dorne are clear about one thing.
“This is coach Gussler’s position,” says Dorne. “He’s so meaningful to this school and this community, but especially to the boys on this team.”
Actually, few people have been as affected by Stephen Gussler as his friend and colleague, Sean Luzader. Luzader was dealing with health issues of his own, and doctors were advising him to consider having his colon removed. However, “I kept putting it off,” Luzader admits.
“Without Stephen’s advice I probably wouldn’t have done it. So I don’t know about my whole life, but I certainly owe quite a bit of my life to him.”
Other evidence of Gussler’s influence is not hard to find. Varsity players shaved their heads in solidarity with coach Guss. The rival school’s fans wore “Guss Strong” T-shirts to a basketball game. Around 400 Thomas Worthington students and community members posed for an aerial photo to send to Gussler while he was recovering from an operation at a Tulsa hospital.
“You can tell when he’s in pain, yet he’s still smiling,” Luzader says, “He still wants to joke. He still wants to talk to you, about you. He makes everybody in the room feel good about their lives.”
Ah, yes, the smile. Talk to someone long enough about Coach Guss, and that smile will inevitably come up.
“After a long day of teaching, and a long day on the field, he was emotionally drained. We could tell,” says former Cardinals captain Emerson Keppler. “But he would still have a smile on his face.”
He’s a thoughtful and articulate young man, but when asked what it means to be “Guss Strong,” Keppler pauses a moment. He’s not sure you can appreciate it until you’ve met Gussler.
“Being ‘Guss Strong’ means attacking adversity the best, most mature, most positive way you can,” he eventually ventures, and then posits a theory as to where Guss gets his strength.
Nearly every day, Keppler says, he saw members of Gussler’s family at practice. The coach’s wife, Angie, who’s also a teacher at Thomas Worthington was a frequent guest. So were Gussler’s brother, his parents, and his four kids.
Luzader echoes this. “I think his family is often overlooked in this. [Angie] epitomizes ‘Guss Strong.’ If you see her, you should give her a hug, too, and tell her good job, because she’s fought this fight, too.”
Also in the fight, according to Luzader? Gussler’s players. “They’re very close to him. Every emotion he has, they feel.”
The end result is a virtuous circle: Guss is a good friend, so he attracts good friends. Guss gives to the sport, and the sport gives back to him.
“That’s undoubtedly been a huge part of this,” Leahy agrees, “giving him something to work towards. I remember he was hooked up to a lot of machines; he was straining to talk. We spent 30 seconds on that, and then he wanted to talk about the upcoming team. He wanted to turn the page to that. He’s that into it. Even when he’s straining to talk, he wants to talk about next year’s team.”
Since 2008, there have been a few constants in Stephen Gussler’s life. Family was one. Friends were another. Baseball made the list, so did cancer.
Even during his darkest moments, though, Gussler told everyone he was “living the dream.”
It would take the bravest and biggest of dreamers to imagine where Gussler’s positive attitude would lead.
“Long-shots have to start somewhere,” Guthrie says. He was talking about his now famous tweet, shared hundreds of times online, and the hashtag, #GetGussOnESPN, that has been picked up by hundreds of others. He could have just as easily been talking about the man.
You see, after years of both leaning on those who cared about him, and being a source of strength for others, it turns out that Gussler wouldn’t make it to surgery…
He didn’t need it. Doctors took another look at his tests. Where they previously believed there was a small cancerous growth, there was none. Guss has been declared cancer free.