The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 21, 2014

A Don McCormack column: A matter of the heart

As he prepares to play his final game in Lakeside Gymnasium tonight, Kyle Downs knows his best friend, Austin Tome, will be looking down on him

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

— Kyle Downs remembers as if it happened yesterday, though in truth, it was almost four years ago. He stood by, watching his best friend in this world as he eyeballed the wheelchair being pushed in his direction.

And Kyle knew that wasn’t going to go over well with his buddy.

He was correct, too. As he watched his pal begin to speak, he braced for the objection he knew was coming.

Turns out, though, not even Kyle was prepared for what he was about to hear...



Buddies...

Austin Tome and Kyle Downs were the proverbial cleancut, all-American boys.

They spent their formative years roughhousing, be it in sports such as football or basketball or playing kickball or even hide-and-seek in the backyard.

“We were absolute best friends,” Kyle said. “We did everything together. You name it, we did it... together.”

They went to preschool together and their bond built from there.

The only time they opposed one another was in Little League.

“Austin was on the Tigers,” Kyle said. “I was on the Yankees.

“It wasn’t fun not being on his team.”

While not teammates in Little League, turns out, that would be the only occasion they weren’t attached at the hip.

“There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me and there was nothing I wouldn’t do for him.”

Kyle, the son of Michele and Bill, and Austin, the son of Kym and Bill, lifetime of friendship.

They were, but...

“I remember, Austin and I were playing in a YMCA basketball game, we were on the same team,” Kyle said. “In one of our final games, he said he had a stomach ache, which wasn’t like him.

“He never complained about anything.”



Terrible news

Austin’s stomach ache was more than that. Much more than that.

“When they took him to the hospital, they discovered Austin had cancer,” Kyle said. “Mom sat me down and explained everything to me. She told me how bad it was.”

And it was indeed bad. The 11-year-old fourth grader at Thomas Jefferson Elementary was about to be put in the fight of his life... for his life.

In February 2007, Austin Elliot Tome was diagnosed with Desmoplastic Small Round Blue Cell Tumor (DSRCT), a rare and very aggressive form of cancer that primarily targets young teenage boys.

“I really didn’t know what to do,” Kyle said. “This was my best friend and he was in trouble.”

Austin was one of those kinds of kids who rarely sat still. He was always into something.

Full of life and love for his family, including younger brothers, Bryce and Gage, he was involved in the YMCA basketball and soccer programs, the Ashtabula Little League and the Jefferson Midget Football League. He was always running or swimming, playing kickball or flashlight tag and skateboarding.

Austin enjoyed movies, amusement parks and video games and his “favorite thing” —  his dirt bike.

Partial to spicy food, he also had talents for music, playing electric guitar and saxophone.

“He loved so many different things,” Kyle said, in obvious admiration. “And he was good at all of them.”



Heart of a lion

Austin proved to be “good” at fighting for his life, too, even against an aggressive cancer that has only a 10-percent cure rate.

“He was incredible during the entire time he was fighting the cancer,” Kyle said. “He never gave up. He was always fighting.”

In the 31¼2-year war Austin waged against the horrific disease he faced chemotherapy, multiple surgical procedures, liver and pancreas transplants, the removal of his intestines and 60 percent of his stomach, a stem-cell transplant using his own stem cells, hospitalizations for weeks to months at a time, MRI scans, intervenous-fluid insertion, medications, bloodwork and testing, radiation treatment, insulin and sugar testing, pain-management treatments and a procedure on his spine called kyphoplasty, which is used to treat painful compression fractures in the spine.

“He was so brave,” Kyle said. “He was... is... such an inspiration to me.”

Which is why Kyle has written Austin’s names on all his athletic shoes ever since. A standout at running back and outside linebacker in football for coach Frank Hall, a shooting guard in basketball for coach Jim Hood and excellent singles player in tennis for legendary coach Bob Walters, he has carried his best friend with him.

It’s why Kyle has worn Austin’s number — 24 — his entire career.

“Every time I step onto a field, or a court, I think of Austin,” Kyle said. “He’s always with me.”

Which he will be when the 3.8 student heads to Ohio University, where he will study marketing and business and attempt to walk onto the basketball team, in the fall.



Superhuman resolve

Austin’s inner strength was not hidden nor diminished by the disease that attacked him. He was part of every decision in regards to his care, always expressing an attitude of, “OK, let’s do this!” when presented what was about to happen.

“Looking back, even now, I don’t know how he did it,” Kyle said. “His courage was incredible.”

So much so, in fact, Austin was one of three recipients  of the Cleveland Clinic Childrens Hospital’s Courage Award for 2009.

The 31¼2-year fight against cancer only heightened Austin’s steadfast determination to make the most of the time he had left. He worked on new and old friendships, took part in camps for kids, went on trips and attended professional sporting events.

Most of all, he loved being a big brother to Bryce and Gage.

“He never quit living,” Kyle said.

Which is why one of Austin’s favorite quotes  is engraved on plaques that hang in Lakeside Junior High and Lakeside High School.

It was something he heard only a month before his death, but loved it... and lived by it.

It reads, “When life knocks you down, you can choose whether or not to get back up.”



Night to remember

Austin will be with Kyle and their classmates tonight as Lakeside High School will say goodbye to its senior boys basketball players before the Dragons host South in a Premier Athletic Conference clash at Lakeside Gymnasium.

It’s sure to be an emotional night, especially with Kyle having invited Austin’s parents, Kym and Bill, to be in attendance.

“It’s a special night for us, but having Austin’s parents with us will only make it that much more special,” Kyle said. “He’s always been close to my heart.”

Which is why Kyle chose to have a tattoo put on his chest. While Austin rests in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Geneva, he also rests in Kyle.

“It’s of a cross, with a ribbon on top of it,” he said. “It has ‘Austin’ on it.”

Austin Tome, even in a blink of an eye in terms of a lifespan, was a Lakeside success story... an Ashtabula success story... a good-for-the-soul success story.

His life story may have come to an end, but his short time will always be a shining example of what a young man can accomplish... and how many lives, one most especially, a young guy with a great heart and indomitable spirit can affect.

Epilogue

Kyle Downs lost his best friend to cancer at 1:40 a.m. on Thursday, June 24, 2010.

And as Austin arrived at the hospital for what would be the final time, he saw the wheelchair headed in his direction to take him inside.

“He said there was ‘no way!’ he was going to use a wheelchair,” Kyle said with emphasis. “Now, you have to remember, he couldn’t even walk because of everything he had been through.”

At that moment, though, something happened, almost a small miracle.

“Somehow, Austin found it within himself to get up to his feet and walk into the hospital,” he said. “It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever heard of.

“Even now, it just amazes me. It’s so inspiring... ”

Something that inspires him every single day.

“I pray for Austin every night,” Kyle said. “He’s so much a part of me. Because of him, I know no matter how bad things may be or seem to be, there’s always someone out there who has it much, much worse than me.

“I hope and pray he is proud of me.”

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.