Rugby Team Engineers Way to Fight Cancer

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On a cold October Friday Night in 2016, the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) welcomed Northwestern University for a somber, yet celebratory first ever game. MSOE, which participates in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) powered by Penn Mutual, hoped to honor one of its former players who passed away from brain cancer with an inaugural fundraiser and game to tackle brain cancer.

MSOE created the event to honor Curtis Thomas, a 2010 graduate and rugby player, who passed away from the deadly disease in 2012 at the age of 24. Thomas was a tremendous and charismatic leader for the MSOE Raiders, who was known for the relationships he built with his fellow rugby players and his coach.

Thomas was a member of the Raiders from 2006-2010, a program that was founded in 2005 by Shannon Bustillos. On a team that took plenty of lumps and experienced the growing pains of an early rugby program, Thomas’ commitment and leadership ensured a sustained legacy for the program.

“I have coached for over 20 years and he was just one of those players that you wish the whole team could have emulated,” said Bustillos. “Always at practice, he was a great leader on and off the field. He was very involved in the community, was friends with everyone, and always went above and beyond in everything he did.”

Both Thomas and Bustillos departed MSOE in 2010 for new adventures but shortly after graduation, Thomas was diagnosed with brain cancer. For Bustillos, who was very close with her former player, the news was difficult to process.

“It really hit me hard,” an emotional Bustillos recounted. “I was not coaching the team at the time we found out and it just took a big toll on all of us because of the type of person that Curtis was.”

While Thomas continued to fight the disease, a number of fundraising efforts were held to help him and his family during this time of need. Additionally, Harley Helping Hands, an organization that supports adults dealing with a brain cancer diagnosis, stepped up to provided financial and emotional support to Thomas and his family.

Curtis Thomas
"MSOE Takes on Northwestern October 2016"

“So many people just came out of nowhere. That is just the type of person he was and how many lives that he touched,” Bustillos said of the fundraising effort.

Thomas continued to remain positive throughout the course of his fight, which ultimately ended in the fall of 2012. His passing hit the entire MSOE rugby family very hard.

“I can tell you that that is the hardest thing I have ever had to go through,” Bustillos said of losing Thomas. “The boys I coached who played with him were just as devastated, making it an incredibly difficult time in all of our lives.”

In tough times, Bustillos and the MSOE rugby community leaned on one another to support everyone through the healing process.

“We helped each other cope. Over time, we slowly learned how to deal with his passing but we always want to remember the person he was.”

So when Bustillos returned to coach the team in 2016, the program chose to honor him and support efforts to fight brain cancer with the fundraising event. Despite it being nearly four years after his death, Bustillos was determined never to forget a player that had such an impact on her life and the members of the MSOE rugby community.

“As a way to honor Curtis, I decided to have the current team get to know who he was, what he was about and to do things in the community,” said an emotional Bustillos.

The engineering school hosted Northwestern for a Friday night match under the lights, with all of the proceeds going to Harley Helping Hands. “Harley Helping Hands supported the Thomas family tremendously while Curtis was sick, so we decided that we were going to hold this fundraiser and give the money to that organization.”

MSOE hopes to make the game an annual event to raise money that will help fight the disease, and remember the impact Thomas had on so many people.

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