PAOLA — Strong Wright, a Paola teenager, gave the Panther football team some added inspiration Friday night in a 35-28 victory against the Tonganoxie Chieftains in a battle of two state-ranked teams.
Strong, who is fighting a brain tumor, recently finished his final round of chemotherapy. Typically, hospitals will have the cancer patient ring a bell following the last treatment. Due to COVID-19, Strong did not get to do that.
His family asked Strong where he wanted to ring the bell. There was no doubt the place had to be at Panther Stadium for a Paola football game. Last year he led the team onto the field eight days before having 90 percent of his tumor removed.
Strong was back on the football field Friday night, Sept. 18, to ring the bell as the Paola Panthers ran onto the field.
It was an inspirational, magical night as the Panther football team dedicated the game to Strong. His older brother, Jackson Earlywine, a linebacker, intercepted a pass and returned it for the first touchdown of his career.
With the Panthers leading 35-28 in the final minute of the game, the Chieftains were driving and launched a pass that was picked off fittingly by Brock Pitzer. A better script could not have been written for a Hollywood screenplay. The victory was sealed by Pitzer, a Paola senior, who lost his father Mike to a brain tumor 10 years ago.
Strong was introduced in the Paola Panther locker room to visit with the team prior to the game, letting them know about his journey in a fight to beat cancer and the joy of having the opportunity to ring the bell.
Strong walked to the 50-yard line where he rang the bell again with Paola and Tonganoxie fans standing to salute his courage, strength and faith.
“It was awesome to ring the bell tonight,” Strong said. “It felt great to be around people again. It felt like the old days with something a little more normal in our new normal.”
The Paola Panthers dedicated the game to Strong.
“When your legs feel tired, think of him and what he went through,” Paola coach Michael Dumpert said to his players in the locker room. “We are playing this game tonight for Strong. The least we can do for him is play hard.
“We are dedicating the game to him,” Dumpert said. “The strength and the courage he has shown is inspirational. We feed off of that.”
While visiting with Paola Superintendent Matt Meek before the game, Strong called the final score, 35-28.
The showdown between last year’s Frontier League co-champions was circled on the calendar and lived up to the hype, going down to the wire tied 28-28.
Paola came into the game as the underdog, ranked third in the state for Class 4A. Tonganoxie was ranked No. 2.
Tonganoxie would strike first, scoring on a 60-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
Facing fourth down and 8, the Paola Panthers tied the game on a 9-yard over-the-shoulder catch by Bo Robison on a great pass from Garrett Williams.
Carter Stanchfield made a great tackle in the backfield for a loss of yardage. Jake Karr and Isaac Brakner combined for a key stop on third down, and Tonganoxie was forced to punt.
The Panther defense stood tall again in the second quarter as Earlywine picked off a Tonganoxie pass at the 50-yard line and returned it for the touchdown, the first of his career.
Tonganoxie tied the score on a 21-yard touchdown pass with 8:18 left in the second quarter.
Williams broke loose on a 77-yard touchdown run, giving Paola a 21-14 lead at the half.
Williams capped a 69-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, scoring on the 13th play with a 2-yard run.
Tonganoxie answered with an 8-yard touchdown run to make it a one possession game, 28-21, in the fourth quarter.
The Chieftains recovered a live ball on the kickoff, taking over at the Panther 27-yard line. Tonganoxie put the ball in the end zone with an 8-yard touchdown run.
Paola converted on fourth down three times on its ensuing possession, taking a 35-28 lead on an 18-play drive that covered 73 yards. Williams had a 5-yard run to move the chains on a fourth down and two. He had a quarterback sneak on fourth down and one, getting Paola a new set of downs.
Jovanni Blackie had a 7-yard run, stretching out and lunging for the final yards for first down and goal to go at the 2-yard line. Williams scored on a 2-yard touchdown run with 55 seconds left on the clock.
Pitzer ended the suspense 15 seconds later, picking off a Tonganoxie pass to seal the victory.
Paola, 3-0, was five-for-five on fourth down conversions. Tonganoxie, 2-1, moved the chains on fourth down on four of five attempts.
Williams ran the ball 15 times for 135 yards and three touchdowns. He completed four of 10 passes for 22 yards and a touchdown.
Blackie had 18 carries for 93 yards. Fletcher Aude, a blocking fullback, had 53 yards on 13 attempts.
Robison had three receptions, including a touchdown catch.
Brakner led the Paola defense with nine tackles. Karr made eight tackles. Earlywine had six tackles.
Stanchfield made five tackles.
Ian Heid was five-for-five on extra-point kicks. Williams had one punt for 45 yards.