Tony Gossard could hardly believe what he was hearing.
A computer scientist at the Air Force Research Lab at Wright Patterson, he was on a business trip in Montgomery, Ala. His son Stephen was back here in his dorm room at Wright State, where – after beating the odds on so many fronts – he was about to start his career as a college basketball player.
“I’ll never forget the conversation,” Tony said. “He called me and told me he was thinking of quitting basketball. I got a little emotional about it. Truthfully, we were having words – we were in an argument – even though we were 500 miles apart.”
His son had handled so much in that past year and a half that Tony was disappointed he was giving up on his dream now.
Stephen – who everybody in the hoops world and back in their hometown of Waynesviile calls Goose – had played the end of his junior season in high school and in some early summer AAU games even though it had become increasingly difficult for him to run up and down the court.
He couldn’t catch his breath, had a persistent pain in his chest and had been losing weight in alarming fashion.
Finally – in July of 2009 – he was found to have a brick-sized tumor pushing up against his heart and one lung. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he underwent extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Waynesville rallied around his fight. There were fund raisers, a steady stream of food showed up at the Gossard’s door and townsfolk all wore the “Goose” bracelets sold by the grade-school kids.
And when Goose finally did return to his high school basketball team midway through his senior season – even with his chest still bandaged beneath his jersey — the Spartans gym was jammed to the rafters and the crowd gave him a standing ovation the first he stepped onto the court.
Within four or five games, he was starting to look like his old self. He scored 34 points against Bellbrook and by season’s end, he would win all Southwest Buckeye League honors.
But the colleges that had shown some interest in him before he got sick had mostly moved on, so he began an e-mail campaign of his own and finally convinced WSU’s Billy Donlon to at least look at him as a walk on.
He had shown up at the Raiders’ open gyms in the summer of 2010 and made enough of an impression that Donlon, who was just taking over the program, decided to include him on his team.
But then came that disconcerting September phone call between father and son.
“My point to Stephen was, ‘You need to give it time,’” Tony said. “I told him, ‘You’re on a team and you need to finish what you started. You commit to something and – unless there are some crazy circumstances – you need to see it through. You need to be a young man of integrity and character.’
“Finally, I told him, ‘We’ll talk about this more when I get back home, but I really don’t think you should quit.’ And that’s when he ‘fessed up. I’ll never forget what he said:
“’Dad, it’s back.’”
The tumor had returned and Tony soon realized his son had known about it for a while before ever saying anything.
“When I found out the truth, I apologized,” Tony said.
And rightly so.
Staring down death
The cancer may have returned, but his son – and all those principles he stood for – had never left.
As for finishing what he started, Goose Gossard is now a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward for the Raiders and it’s safe to say no one in the Miami Valley this season has gone through more than he to be a college athlete.
The second cancer battle came with more aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments and finally a stem cell transplant.
“He’s had to face death a couple of times now – I mean it was staring him right in the face,” Tony quietly said of his 21-year-old son. “Each time – with the help of some great doctors – he plugged right through it.”
While going through treatments, though, he had to drop out of Wright State for three quarters and once he could come back he had to build his body back up after another significant weight loss.
As a walk-on he pays his own way to school. To help with expenses, he has become certified to referee high school and AAU games and though he won’t be able to fully pursue that job until after the WSU season, he did just recently officiate a high school scrimmage between Belmont and National Trail.
To better able to afford college, he said he quit living in the dorm and moved back home to Waynesville, which means a daily commute. And finally he’s had to cope with going from a high school star to an end-of-the-bench sub, one who played in just nine games last season and scored three points.
“The bottom line, though, is that he wants to be a Wright State Raider,” Tony said. ‘It’s not just about getting in a game for a moment of glory now, it’s all aspects of it. He loves the coaches there, his teammates, the weight room, practice, everything. He loves basketball and when you love what you do your mind doesn’t focus on anything else. It becomes therapeutic.
“Wright State basketball is the fire that keeps him going.”
‘A real punch in the stomach’
Goose said his mom’s brothers are both 6-foot-8 and that his dad’s “great, great grandpa, or something like that” was 7 foot-1.
And yet no one in the family has stood taller than he – especially in circumstances that would have bowed anyone else.
“Before the cancer was discovered the first time I had this pain up under my clavicle for about seven months,” he said. “It just kept getting worse and the doctor felt around it and thought I might have broken it and it had just repaired itself.
“But my blood counts kept getting lower and I’d lost over 50 pounds and pretty soon I’d run to one end of the court and be on my knees unable to breathe.”
The cancer diagnosis, Tony said, “was a real punch in the stomach that just wouldn’t go away.”
Goose agreed: “At first it kind of freaked me out. The whole family was upset. But finally I was able to bounce back by telling myself I was going to get through it and God would help me. I thought He had a plan for me.”
Although Goose’s return to his Waynesville High team for the last half of his senior season was celebrated by everyone as a glorious comeback story, Tony now admits he had some nagging fears:
“I looked at the PET scans after the treatments. They light up bright green when there is still activity and there was plenty green, so I expected the tumor might come back.”
He didn’t figure it would return so quickly, nor did he know the next set of treatments would be so aggressive.
Goose moved from a Dayton oncology center to the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State, where, following often debilitating chemotherapy sessions and radiation, he underwent a transplant of his own harvested stem cells.
When he finally returned home in late winter of 2011, he said he had to take extreme precautions to ward off infections:
“They told me with my immune system, it was like I was born just five days ago. I had to wear a mask all the time. We had to have all my food cooked well done and I couldn’t have things like milk or eggs or even fresh fruit.”
As he slowly got healthier and stronger – and finally was given clearance to begin the long, arduous journey through the WSU weight room and practice gym back to get back to the college basketball floor – he embraced the sport more tightly than ever.
“It feels good to be back on the court having fun rather than worrying about all the other stuff,” he said. “Basketball helps me push all that to the background so I can focus again on everything that’s good in my life.”
Working for more time on the floor
Tony said his son could probably go to a Division II school where he’d get scholarship help and play more, but “he doesn’t want to. He loves Wright State, loves coach Donlon and those boys are his friends.”
Goose said a lot of them were there for him when his cancer reappeared and Donlon continually reassured him that he was still a part of the team.
“This isn’t a charity deal,” Donlon said. “Sure, the cancer has set him back, but he has some skills and he’s got some real size and he definitely has a passion for the game and this program. He’s given a lot to be a part of this.”
And he wants to give more.
One day he hopes to work his way into the rotation and play more, but the only way he figures he can do that is to work hard in practice and “impress the coaches.”
As for the latter point – making an impression – Donlon said Goose did that long ago.
“We were just talking about this as a staff the other day,” Donlon said. “Anytime we do anything as a team – whether it’s a workout , a weight room session, watching film and academic meeting – Goose says ‘thank you’ after each thing he does.
Now I’m proud of all our kids and who they are – they’re good kids – but in the world of athletics there is occasionally some spoil-dom. But with Goose, he’s thanking us. And here’s a kid who’s not on scholarship. “
Tony was moved when he heard about that, but not surprised:
“Once you go through what he has, you look at things differently. He’s wise beyond his age. He knows what matters and he’s thankful for another two years on this planet. He’s in remission now and he’s thankful for all the good things that are happening to him.”
And that would include last Saturday night when he played six minutes in a 92-59 victory over VMI and scored first off an offensive rebound and then on a pick-and-roll play with teammate Joe Bramanti.
He hopes the four-point, two-rebound effort will be a small stepping stone to bigger contributions in the future.
Tony and his wife Dawn were in the Nutter Center stands that night.
“There’s nothing like a dad’s proudness when he sees his son out there on the floor,” he said. “Seeing him healthy and happy – going after his dream – it just makes you feel really good. After all he’s been through, I get pretty choked up every time he goes out there.”
Sometimes, Tony Gossard can hardly believe what he’s seeing.