GREENFIELD — In life, there are good days and bad days. And then there are days like Aug. 28, which for Rusty Burgess, was all a man could ask for.
A bowler most of his life, the 52-year-old Burgess finally scored his first 300 game during the Tuesday night men’s league at Strike Force Lanes in Greenfield.
Fellow bowlers and friends burst with applause when Burgess finished off his 12th straight strike.
“I’ve started eight, nine, 10 strikes in a row before and something just
always happened where I didn’t finish it out,” said Burgess, who carries a 200 average. “But this night it was different, it was almost like a peace came over me.
“On my 12th ball, I just went up and threw it. I turned around and walked away, and as soon as I heard the ball hit the pins everyone just erupted. I did not watch the last ball go down the lane … because I did not want to see it.”
Part of Burgess’ non-chalant attitude and part of the “peace” he felt that evening was due to the sheer insignificance of the event.
Strike or gutter ball, Burgess was alive and well, and his existence was very much up in the air two years ago when Burgess’ right lung was removed to take out the cancer that had spread through his lung and wrapped around his heart.
Earlier in the day on Aug. 28, before Burgess rolled his perfect game, doctors informed Burgess that he was cancer free. It was the fourth six-month checkup since Burgess underwent surgery in September of 2010 to clear out the cancer.
It was with a blessed attitude that Burgess took to the lanes that Tuesday night, and that carefree feeling carried through the 300 game.
“I was just thinking that if it was meant to be, it was going to happen,” he said. “With the fantastic news that I already had earlier that day again, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really relevant to life.
“In the big scheme of things, shooting a 300 is great and it’s an achievement that not many people get to do, but it’s even better to be alive and have your family and friends around you.”
The biggest part of Burgess’ recovery was the support of his wife, Cathy. Married for 31 years, the couple has cared for their daughter, Ashley, for all of her 23 years. Ashley has cerebral palsy and requires nearly full-time supervision.
With Burgess recovering from a six-hour surgery — in which doctors originally planned to remove only two lobes of Burgess’ lung but had to go further when they detected the cancer had spread to the pericardium around the heart — it was up to Cathy to take on round-the-clock responsibilities of Ashley.
“They had to break a rib to get in there to get the lung out and I couldn’t do any lifting,” said Burgess, who later underwent chemotherapy. “I felt like I let everyone down. I’ve got a little girl that’s got cerebral palsy and mommy and daddy are the ones that take care of her all the time, so all of a sudden daddy’s out of the picture for six months or so until I heal up.
“It put a lot of burden on my wife. She’s been tremendous.”
Doctors pegged Burgess’ cigarette smoking as the cause of his cancer, and he immediately kicked the habit. And, although he was already in good shape, Burgess became a three-times-a-week exerciser.
Besides a desire to get back on his feet for his family and for his co-workers — Burgess commented that he “loves” his job as the building inspector for Hancock County — his other inspiration was returning to the sport he has a passion for, and the people that accompany the action at Strike Force Lanes.
Burgess returned to bowling, and to his extended family, in the spring of 2011.
“When you’re spending two-three hours at least once a week with a group of people, you get to know each other,” he said. “You intermingle and you get to know each other and each other’s personality.
“I’ve made so many friends at this bowling alley it’s amazing. That’s the huge thing.”
Among Burgess’ many supporters is Rob Barnhart, who took over as the Strike Force Lanes operator in November of 2011. The two men have much in common; Barnhart’s daughter, Jessica, battled through a debilitating disease, suffering from Melnick-Needles Syndrome — an extremely rare inherited disorder that caused her bones to grow crooked instead of straight. It required surgery about every six months, and she passed away March 5 of this year after her 30th surgery to treat complications from the disease.
Jessica was 15-years-old at the time.
Barnhart said the Strike Force bowling community is quick to rally around those in need.
“I notice that a lot,” said Barnhart, who also has a parent battling cancer. “Everyone was there for Rusty, and we noticed it a lot in our situation.
“We lost our daughter in March and I tell people all the time this place has been a Godsend. Just good people. And there’s a lot of good stories like that out here.”
One of Jessica’s dying wishes was to set up a foundation to help families struggling with medical bills, much like her own family did.
Later this month, Burgess and other bowlers will take part in a fundraiser at Strike Force for Jessica’s foundation. It’s one of several fundraisers, for a variety of causes, hosted by Strike Force.
“The local soup kitchen came in here and made 10 grand one Sunday,” Barnhart said. “It’s good for business, and it’s also a way to give back to the community, because this community has been awfully good to my family over the years.”
Burgess is also keen on giving back. Besides participating in the bowling fundraisers, he’s a regular contributor to the American Cancer Society and the Relay for Life in Greenfield.
“I try to do anything I can to help out,” said Burgess, who added that, despite being part of an exclusive 300-game club, he’s more honored to be a member of the cancer-fighting community.
“It’s like you feel invincible and all of a sudden you’re not invincible. So it was a huge wake up call. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m human.’”
To sign up for a Relay For Life event, visit www.relayforlife.org or www.cancer.org. For more information on Strike Force Lanes, visit www.strikeforcelanes.com or call (317) 477-2695.