Despite a doctor's recommendation to continue to stay home after his bone marrow transplant in February, Paul Rupp returned to Oakton High's hallways in May.
"You get such great energy from the kids. I could be laying at home feeling miserable, eating myself fat," said Rupp, the Virginia Athletic Trainers Association's 2011 Secondary School Athletic Trainer of the Year. "The more I can be here working, getting energy from the kids, the better it is for me. I might as well feel positive about it."
On Sept. 21, the Oakton High community teamed up with Annandale High to continue Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Awareness Night, which began in the fall football season before Rupp's diagnosis.
The annual fundraiser and awareness night started under Coach Joe Thompson, the former Cougars football coach whose father-in-law died of lymphoma. Thompson left his position as head coach before the 2011 season to take an administration position at Annandale High, but the event turned into an annual tradition.
"I never dreamed it would go past when I left. It's really neat to see that it's happened this way," said Thompson, who attended the Oakton-Annandale matchup that doubled as an LLS Awareness Night.
Because of Thompson's new ties to Annandale, Oakton parents reached out to the school to take part in the drive this year and formed a partnership that has the schools trading off host duties each season when the teams play.
"The kids know what's going on tonight. In high school, you think you're bulletproof," Thompson said. "They don't know what this can do with somebody that's suffering, but they're aware now. And that's the purpose."
Thompson also praised Rupp for his strong demeanor as he continues to fight the disease while staying dedicated to his position at Oakton High, saying he is offering them a valuable life lesson.
"What a great role model. Paul is a close, personal friend of mine. He has never been about anything but the health of these kids. They're his kids. And now he's modeling just how not to quit, how to go on with life," Thompson said. "He could not be here tonight, but he won't feel sorry for himself. He won't let it beat him. He won't stop fighting. It won't dawn on kids until they're a little bit older. They will remember it."
Thompson and Rupp had never worked with LLS until Oakton High School began partnering with them for the awareness nights. Rupp has used resources such as Caring Bridge and Life with Cancer, for which his wife volunteers.
"Any support that any organization can give to people who need help is incredibly important," Rupp said. "I'm happy Oakton has taken this on."
LLS welcomed two Northern Virginia families to participate in a pregame ceremony, recognizing them as heroes and putting more faces to the diseases.
Ava Buhr, a 3-year-old battling Pre-B Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and her family stood alongside the family of Tyler DeMille, a 6-year-old in recovery from Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia.
For the Buhrs, the Oakton event marked the first time they've attended an event to help promote LLS.
"This is the first time we've done something like this, and we really just want to raise awareness," said Jeannie Buhr, Ava's mother. "I think it's fantastic. When I was 15, I didn't know about childhood cancer. It's good for these high-schoolers to know now so they can become active"
The DeMille family has been active with LLS for a few years, as Tyler received his diagnosis at 8 months old. They participate in the organization's annual regatta and decided to help represent at the Oakton fundraising and awareness night for the first time this year.
"Ever since he was sick, we knew that when he made it through we had to pay back for the amazing support we've received from LLS. They've been amazing," said Dan DeMille, Tyler's father. "It's a really caring group for a great cause."
Both Oakton and Annandale high schools plan to continue the annual event as long as both teams stay on each other's schedule.