SHHS football game, Zumbathon promote cancer awareness in late student’s memory

By: Cortney Casey | C&G Newspapers | Published September 26, 2012

Courage, perseverance, hope: They were the words emblazoned on wristbands sold in 2010 to support Sterling Heights High School student Brian Thomas during his battle with cancer.

They’re the words that continue to guide the SHHS community as it remembers Thomas, who passed away Sept. 29, 2011, and honor others touched by the disease through a pair of upcoming events.

On Sept. 28, SHHS will host its second-annual cancer awareness football game, a 7 p.m. home matchup against Lake Shore High School.

Spectators can get free admission by purchasing special T-shirts for $15, with $10 from each purchase going to Malia’s CORD Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is finding a cure for pediatric spinal cord gliomas, a type of spinal cord tumor. A bake sale and other on-site promotions also will benefit the foundation.

The cause is especially appropriate, as oligodendro glioma, a spinal tumor near the base of the brainstem, was what claimed Brian Thomas, the team’s quarterback.

“There’s very little research done on this type of … central nervous system tumors,” said his mother, Paula Thomas. “What the CORD Foundation does is try to bring awareness and hope for better treatment for these, and hopefully a cure. I will spend the rest of my life raising funding for this foundation.”

SHHS football coach Brent Widdows said Brian Thomas actually discovered Malia’s CORD Foundation online a few years ago, when Widdows asked him to research organizations to receive proceeds from another cancer awareness game in Romeo.

Each year, SHHS plans to emphasize two different types of cancer to draw attention to the disease’s myriad forms, said Widdows, who emphasized that he wanted to go beyond merely adding a few pink accents to the uniform.

“It’s a horrific disease, and it affects so many people,” he said. “I didn’t want all our football players to think just wearing pink socks was cool.”

This year, in addition to spinal cord cancer, the game will focus on multiple myeloma. That condition, too, resonates in the SHHS community, as Widdows’ mother — who also fought chronic myeloid leukemia — is receiving treatment for it, as is band director Anthony Imbrunone’s mother.

Players will don colors associated with those two cancer types: maroon and cream. Plus, all players and band members have the name of a person who has gone through cancer or someone going through it now on the backs of their jerseys and shirts, said Lynnette Hyde of the SHHS Booster Club.

Widdows said Brian Thomas’ jersey number, No. 6, hasn’t been retired, because he believes such gestures get lost in the rafters, forgotten.

Instead, the cancer awareness game has become the only time No. 6 will be worn on the field, with Widdows tapping two students “who we feel best represent and honor Brian through athletics and academics” to don the jersey — this year, captains Anthony Solitro and Jacob Heins.

According to Widdows, last year’s game attracted about 1,500 people, and he’s hoping for even more this year.

At 6 p.m. the next evening, Sept. 29, SHHS will host a Zumbathon in Brian Thomas’ memory. Instructors from Studio Z will lead participants in 90 minutes of Zumba, a fast-paced, Latin dance-inspired fitness program, and raffles for gift baskets, electronics and more will be offered.

The cost is $10 for students with identification and $15 for adults, proceeds from which will go to Malia’s CORD Foundation. Attendees must be at least 12 years old.

A candlelight vigil will follow at 8:30 p.m., commemorating Brian Thomas and others who have lost their battles with cancer.

Leading up to the Sept. 28-29 festivities, the school is conducting “penny wars” during lunchtime, with students dropping change into jars that represent various administrators. The jar that amasses the most money will determine which staffer must take the stage to lead a song during the Zumbathon.

“None of us have done Zumba, and three of us are male,” laughed Principal Allison Roberts, who’s up for contention along with Kevin Griessel, Craig Miller and Jack Stanton.

“I think it’s always awesome to see the kids come together for a great cause,” she added. “The kids really give generously when we hold events like this. That’s always a true reflection of the community, and something we want to recognize.”

With the Zumbathon coinciding exactly with the first anniversary of her son’s passing, Paula Thomas said she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to bring herself to attend.

But as weeks passed, and she watched community members dedicate so much time and energy to planning it, she realized just how “fitting” it was, an ultimate expression of remembrance.

“I said, ‘You know what — what a perfect thing,’” she said. “We finally have come to this day and dreaded it for so long, and we’ll go there and be with the people who loved Brian so much.”

The game and the Zumbathon will take place at SHHS, located at 12901 15 Mile, west of Schoenherr, in Sterling Heights. For more information on the game, call the school at (586) 825-2700. For more information on the Zumbathon, call Janel Mariani at (586) 939-1626.

For more information on Malia’s CORD Foundation, visit