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High school rivals pulled together in fundraising basketball game for student with rare form of cancer

CovCath senior Thomas Burns, center, poses with classmates wearing TB Strong t-shirts before the fundraising basketball game against Highlands. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

By Jake Dickman

NKyTribune intern 

Students from two historic high school rivals put their strong feelings aside and came together to show their support for a teen-ager diagnosed with cancer on Tuesday.

Covington Catholic and Highlands played a boys basketball game that night to raise money for CovCath senior Thomas Burns. In October, he was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of childhood cancer.

The game evolved into a community event at both schools. The number of people who wanted to show their support for Burns resulted in CovCath moving the game to Evans Fieldhouse at Holmes High School to accommodate a larger crowd.

The fundraiser started out with t-shirts CovCath students created and sold to support a classmate diagnosed with rare form of cancer. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

With more than 2,000 people in attendance, a total of $10,200 was raised from ticket sales and people purchasing bright yellow t-shirts with Burns’ face on front.

When Burns was diagnosed with cancer, he was not sure how to feel. He was mad that it would affect his senior year, but also worried about what would happen to him. To help him through this tough time, a small team of his closest friends wanted to let him know that he was not alone.

The group decided to hold a fundraiser for their friend. They printed t-shirts to wear at the Highlands at CovCath basketball game and raise awareness. But what the shirts and the game would become was something they could never have imagined.

One member of the group, Simon Fieler, made a deal with his aunt, Jan Gilliam, to print the shirts at The Point/Arc of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati where she works. Fieler and his friends then helped with the printing process. 

CovCath coach Scott Ruthsatz moved a home game to a larger fieldhouse to help with the fundraiser. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

Initially, the group’s goal was to sell 200 shirts. The boys figured that the majority of sales would just be CovCath students, but the shirts quickly began to gain traction.

Families from the CovCath community began to order the shirts at the school’s spirit shop. They spread the word and students and families at Highlands ordered shirts to show their support for Burns and his family.

Assisting the group was CovCath athletic director Tony Bacigalupo. As the fundraiser game approached, he called Holmes athletic director Ken Ellis to see if it could be moved to the larger Evans Fieldhouse.

“We got the call and there was no doubt, we would be happy to do it,” said Ellis. “Our superintendent and board were behind it 100 percent.”

Some wondered if Colonels’ head coach Scott Ruthsatz would be willing to give up his home court advantage.

“I don’t care where we play,” stated Ruthsatz. “With the ramifications of why we’re moving it, it was a no brainer.”

Bacigalupo decided that admission to the game would be a suggested $5 donation, with the option to donate more. Fifty percent of the proceeds would go to the Burns family to help with their ongoing costs and the other 50 percent would go to others fighting Ewing Sarcoma.

Thomas Burns participates in the half-court shooting contest held during halftime of the game. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

At halftime, the young men who helped organize the event were recognized along with Thomas, his parents, David and Julie, and his younger brother, Charlie.

“I expected it to be big, but this was way more than I expected,” Thomas said. “It was really awesome to see all these people here.”

After the game, Burns came on the court and received the game ball to a standing ovation. He couldn’t hide his prominent smile that was featured on the t-shirts.

“It’s really inspiring to see students do what they did … and the students at Covington Catholic led this,” said Bacigalupo, who also appreciated the cooperation of Ellis at Holmes, Highlands coach Kevin Listerman and The Point.

“People in Northern Kentucky pull together,” said Ellis.

Those words were never truer than on Tuesday night. What started as a little fundraiser for a friend turned into one of the most popular games of the year and made memories for a young man that will last a lifetime.

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