Worthington News

Remaining 'GussStrong'

Thomas coach's legacy 'will live forever'

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Stephen Gussler Jr. was more than a baseball coach and a school teacher.

A life-lessons teacher and a family man, "Guss" was bigger than Thomas Worthington High School and even the Worthington community itself.

Those are the sentiments of those who knew him best. It is the reason why his death on May 27 touched so many people throughout central Ohio.

"This is truly a sad day in the baseball world," said Grove City baseball coach Ryan Alexander, one of Gussler's many friends in the coaching fraternity. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. His courage has touched and changed so many lives. His legacy will live forever."

Calling hours were June 2 at the high school.

Gussler, 43, spent more than five years fighting stage 4 colon cancer. He first was diagnosed in August 2008 and was told in January 2012 that he had nine to 12 months to live.

Gussler, who coached the Cardinals from 1998-2013 and taught health classes and served as a guidance-studies counselor for at-risk students, is survived by his wife, Angela, and their four children: Yanni, Michayla, Trey and Jaidyn.

Gussler was open, honest and forthcoming about his battle, no matter if he was talking to a student, a player, a fellow coach or an educator. He knew everyone was sympathetic about his fight to live, and early after his original diagnosis, he felt his message wasn't being heard because people were more concerned about him than what he was teaching.

"I remember when he was first diagnosed and we were talking about his situation," said former Hilliard Davidson baseball coach Jim Daugherty, who coached the Wildcats for 32 years before retiring after the 2013 season. "He said that sometimes it took away from other important things he was doing because people were worrying more about 'what I am affected by than how I am affecting others.'"

Gussler continued to fight his battle, speak with strength in hopes of inspiring others and teach those around him what is important in life.

In many respects, Gussler was central Ohio's version of Jimmy Valvano, the late North Carolina State men's basketball coach who led the Wolfpack to the NCAA national championship in 1983 and drew national attention for his courageous yearlong battle with cancer before succumbing to the disease in 1993 at age 47. A month before his death, Valvano, who was working as a college basketball analyst at the time, and ESPN founded The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

In February, doctors told Gussler that scans showed no signs of cancer in his body. But he wasn't feeling well in late March when he went to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with his family during spring break. Soon afterward, he learned that he had a liver infection. His liver and kidneys had been affected by the chemotherapy and other treatments that he had undergone. His body was beginning to shut down.

Despite receiving that devastating news, Gussler took time to talk about Worthington Kilbourne sophomore baseball player Drew George, who had been diagnosed with leukemia last November and was preparing to undergo a bone marrow transplant April 9.

Gussler helped form the "GussStrong" foundation a few years ago in an effort to raise funds to assist those within the Worthington community who are afflicted by disease. The foundation lent its support to George and the "DrewStrong" movement.

"When I heard about (George), I wanted to reach out to him right away," Gussler said. "It takes a lot to battle cancer, and I wanted him to know that he is not alone and that he can beat this. All of the great people in my foundation, including my brother Eric, wanted to put something together for him."

At the time, only those closest to Gussler knew how dire his situation had become. But he made a point he wished would be included in his story, saying, "People tell me I inspire them, but I want everyone to know that I'm living because they inspire me. I am fortunate to have so many wonderful people around me."

"Guss was always fighting, always playing hard in baseball and in life," said Phil Callaghan, a longtime central Ohio baseball coach who currently is coaching Olentangy Orange. "I played in a senior baseball league with him and he had fun and played hard every game, like it was his last. That's something I instill in my players -- to play every game like it's your last. You just never know when it will be."

Gussler graduated from Eastmoor Academy in 1989 and played baseball for Ohio State before graduating in 1993. A pitcher, he helped the Buckeyes win two Big Ten titles.

"He was definitely one of the most well-respected coaches in central Ohio," said Central Crossing baseball coach Scott Todd, who was a teammate of Gussler's at Ohio State. "He was a dear friend, a very compassionate person. He cared about kids. I know his players enjoyed playing for him. He was a great guy."

Gussler compiled a 262-184 record in 16 seasons at Thomas. The Cardinals went 22-7 in 2012 and 24-7 in 2013, winning OCC-Central Division titles and Division I district championships both years. The 2012 district title was the program's first since 1981.

Gussler, who was named Division I state Coach of the Year in 2013, attended the Cardinals' home game against Westland on April 11 when a new sign was unveiled at the baseball facility, Frank Welling Field. The facility is now called Frank Welling Field at Gussler Park.

"Guss was a high-energy person," Dougherty said. "I think he had a special relationship with his team and that was especially magnified the past few years. He had a good players' perspective on things and he related well with the kids. Sometimes coaches have trouble relating from one generation to another, but not Guss."

Anthony Leahy, a 2000 Thomas graduate who served as an assistant the past eight years, took over as head coach this season and led the Cardinals to a 22-7 record and runner-up finishes in both the league and the district tournament.

"He's meant so much to this program," said Leahy, who played for the Cardinals during Gussler's first three seasons as coach. "He took over when the program needed repair and he changed the culture and turned it into a winner.

"But his off-field contributions to the school, the community and to his players' lives were more dramatic. He made a difference in their lives, taught them life lessons and generally helped them become great people. He did that with his students, too. In return, you've seen how many people throughout central Ohio have supported him. He was a teacher to his players, to all of the students and, basically, to all of us."

Gussler's final post on Twitter on April 14 spoke about his battle against cancer and should serve as inspiration to those who knew him: "Life is a game with unfair changing rules but our mission never wavers: (1) Play to Win! (2) Never Surrender!"

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