‘A bigger cause’

Football program’s 500th victory takes back seat to children who “fight just to live another day.”
Posted on 09/30/2019
Football captains Logan Banas, 72, and Shawn Newswanger ready to walk to midfield with Maddie Willing, left, and Rhiley Couglin during Childhood Cancer Awareness Night at Alumni Field.By Gary Weckselblatt

As they gathered prior to running onto the field, the Quakertown Community High School football team has seven special young guests in their pregame huddle.

Six of them are battling cancer and one lost her brother to the dreaded disease.

Before breaking the huddle, the captains address the team. The message of Shawn Newswanger, a senior lineman, was quite profound. He wanted each of his teammates to know that the six young boys not wearing helmets and shoulder pads are the “strongest kids I’ve ever been around. They fight just to live another day.”

And that was how the emotional evening of September 27, 2019, kicked off at Alumni Field. The Panthers defeated visiting Wissahickon 55-7, a landmark 500th victory for the program.

After the game, all football alumni gathered with the team on the Q at midfield for a photograph to preserve the historic moment. “Five hundred wins, you’re part of something special,” head coach George Banas told his players following the triumph.

But as they took a knee and eagerly listened to their coach’s words, 500 wins was no match for the inspirational message brought by Childhood Cancer Awareness Night. “We played for a better cause, a bigger cause,” the coach said.

Shawn exemplified that meaning. The captain and senior lineman understands the impact cancer can have on a family. His mom, Strayer Middle School teacher Kendra Mushrush, has battled breast cancer. “She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever met,” he said, showing someone the pink mouthpiece attached to his helmet.

Shawn also had yellow tape on each wrist. Written on his left wrist was the name “Harrison.” On the right was the word “Strong.” It was his way to honor the life of Harrison Willing, who died on March 20, 2018. Shawn gave Harrison’s mom Danielle a big hug on the team’s sideline before the game. He stood side-by-side with Maddie Willing, Harrison’s sister, during the coin toss when each captain walked to midfield with the little heroes.

“We’ve gotten really close,” Shawn said of his relationship with the Willings. “They’re family to me.”

Junior running back Tyler Merwarth, who scored the game’s first three touchdowns, told Intelligencer correspondent Liz O'Connell, “This game was meant for coaches, players and everyone who has had to deal with someone who has gone through cancer. Some of our teammates have had brothers or sisters go through it. So it means a lot to all of us to just go out here and get a win tonight.”

The football team began holding this magical evening seven years ago. Coach Banas lost his nephew, Parker Lutz, 11 years ago from neuroblastoma. Parker and Banas’s son Logan, a senior on the football team, were best friends.

“It changes everybody,” he said. “There’s no way it can’t. We have six kids in our district battling this. Think about that. We’re just one district.”

The six youngsters honored were Liam Brennan, a fifth-grader at Pfaff Elementary School; Oliver Brooks, a second-grader at Trumbauersville Elementary School; Rhiley Coughlin, a second-grader at Richland Elementary School; Wyatt Rotenberger, a high school freshman; Braden Sell, an eight-grader at Strayer; and Cam Wakeley, a second-grader at St. Isidore’s.

Amanda Coughlin, Rhiley’s mom, said her son was diagnosed with Leukemia as a 1-year-old.

“We’re fortunate he’s still here with us. He’s a shining light,” she said. “This was our first football game, and it was amazing. We’re just so excited to be here. This means a lot to us as parents that the team did this for us.”

The football team isn’t alone in QCSD in celebrating Childhood Cancer Awareness. The district has established a culture of giving, with Mini-THON students raising a record $31,360.65 last spring. Other teams, including baseball and wrestling, have also held fundraisers to aid local families.

“This is so much bigger than just football,” Coach Banas said. “You have the cheerleaders, the student section, the band, our community. They’re awesome. They really get this.”

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529- 2028 or gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.
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