Shooting for a cure

Heritage, William Blount make the battle with cancer personal

William Blount High School junior Tatum Burstrom puts up a free throw against Heritage during a “Pink Out Game” to raise money to fight cancer on Saturday at Marvin Boring Gymnasium.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

William Blount High School junior Tatum Burstrom puts up a free throw against Heritage during a “Pink Out Game” to raise money to fight cancer on Saturday at Marvin Boring Gymnasium.

Rhonda Stinnett is not a statistic.

She’s a wife, a mom and, when it comes to William Blount High School junior Tatum Burstrom, a devoted fan.

Stinnett sat on the back row behind the William Blount bench last Saturday night as Burstrom rallied the Lady Governors to a 46-41 win over rival Heritage in the second “Pink Out Game” between the two schools this season. Burstrom poured in a game-high 21 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, in front of a big homecoming crowd at Marvin Boring Gymnasium to push William Blount over the top.

After the game, the sweet-shooting guard was joined at center court by Lady Governor coach Matt Fowler, who presented the former with a commemorative basketball for reaching 1,000 points in her William Blount career only the night before.

“She’s awesome,” Stinnett said. “I love her spirit and her drive, and it’s just a joy to watch her game after game.”

Later in the evening, Stinnett would step to center court, the announcement this time from public address announcer Gary Stinnett, Rhonda’s husband, decidedly more serious. A little over three years ago, Rhonda was diagnosed with colon cancer.

On a night players from both teams, from both games, had the name of someone who’d been afflicted by cancer announced to the crowd along with theirs, Burstrom chose to honor Rhonda Stinnett.

“I’ve been really close to them for a long time now,” Burstrom said.

After the game earlier this season at Heritage, complete with the same introductions, William Blount’s newest member of the 1,000-point club said she got a note from Stinnett that hit home.

“She sent me a thank-you card later in the week,” Burstrom said, “and that made me feel really good.”

Rhonda Stinnett, then 40, was diagnosed in October of 2007. Two of her children, twins Hannah and Tyler, were then William Blount sophomores.

“I can remember the day we found out,” Gary Stinnett said. “It was just, ‘God’s in control here, and we’ll go with it.’ I never hesitate to tell anyone she’s a lot stronger than I am.”

The diagnosis, coming when it did, proved a blessing, Rhonda said. Colon cancer is hereditary, and her family had a history with the disease, she said. Screening typically doesn’t begin until age 50. Had she waited, Rhonda said, 50 is a birthday she likely would have never seen.

“I’m so thankful,” she said. “My doctor told me, ‘If we had not caught it, you would not have made it to 50.’”

It’s that message and the importance of testing Rhonda Stinnett most wanted to convey to Saturday night’s crowd.

“That’s why I try to get the story out for people to know their family history,” she said.

Early detection and a successful course of treatment proved a blessing Rhonda and Gary Stinnett, associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Maryville, said they will never forget. For many others whose names were announced to the crowd on Saturday, the outcome would prove far different.

A combined 13 players between the two teams played in memory of family and friends who’d lost their lives to the disease. Lady Mountaineer sophomore Kathryn Pryor lost her great-grandmother, Louise McKenry, to cancer several years ago. After watching a college game where the players from both teams put names, instead of simply statistics, with the losses associated with the disease, Pryor mentioned the idea of doing it on the high school level to Blount County Relay For Life event chair Debby Curtis.

“I’d seen the college teams do it before,” Pryor said. “I always thought it would be cool to do it (locally).”

Once Pryor broached the idea to Curtis and Lady Mountaineer coach Rick Howard, who’d lost his mother, Pauline, and a close, high school friend to cancer, things moved quickly. The administration from both schools was soon involved, along with their respective booster clubs, who purchased the uniforms for the occasion.

The two games were a rousing success, Howard said.

“I coached for my mom and a friend of mine,” he said. “Hopefully, we can continue doing this next year. That would be great.”

Curtis would be in full agreement. Often, she said, young people are left out of the loop when it comes to talking about cancer.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t ever rule out the kids,” she said. “The reality is they know more about it than we give them credit for sometimes.”

A health care industry professional, Curtis said she’s seen far too often the effects cancer can have on patients and their loved ones.

“I talk to people on a daily basis that are doing battle with this disease,” she said.

An American Cancer Society study from 2008 estimates 745,180 men and 692,000 women will be diagnosed with cancer each year. Among men, 294,120 of those diagnosed will lose their lives to the disease, with 271,530 women also succumbing.

There are pressing needs for more testing and screening, Curtis said. The monies raised through T-shirt sales and donations for the Pink Out games is both welcomed and needed, she said, the contributions of the players invaluable.

“At the end of the day, those young people stood together and said, ‘Blount County is a team united against cancer,” Curtis said. “In the search for a cure, losing is not an option.”

Rhonda Stinnett said she was quite taken by Burstrom’s tribute. The Lady Governor star has blossomed into one of the area’s top college prospects the last two seasons and is currently in conversation with several schools at the next level. Burstrom and Tyler and Hannah Stinnett have been friends for years. Still, Saturday’s gesture was unexpected, Rhonda Stinnett said.

“It brought tears to my eyes that she would honor me in that way,” she said.

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