Connecticut Three-sport Athlete is 2015 Spirit of Sport Award Recipient
Since literally before she can remember, Grace Cummings of Daniel Hand High School in Madison, Connecticut, has endured life-threatening health issues related to her liver. With a first operation at 12 days of age, and having endured liver-related maladies her entire life, Cummings has not only weathered a lifetime of health challenges, she has thrived and excelled in spite of them.
Cummings, a highly accomplished three-sport student-athlete in field hockey, ice hockey and tennis, has been selected the 2015 recipient of the NFHS’ National High School Spirit of Sport Award. She will receive her award June 29 at the NFHS’ 96th Summer Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.
On the performing arts side, Cummings has been a member of the percussion section in both the school’s marching band and concert band, and she has also been a member of the flag squad.
Cummings has been equally exemplary in the classroom, where as an honor student she has maintained a 3.98 grade-point average while taking all honors or advanced-placement college-level courses. She also shines in national standardized tests, as she scored a perfect 800 in math, and outstanding scores of 710 in writing and 720 in reading on her SAT.
“My favorite sport is ice hockey,” Cummings said. “I’ve been playing it the longest – since kindergarten. It was the first sport I fell in love with. However, I’m also captain of the tennis team. It’s an honor to be selected by your teammates to be captain. I’m not sure where I’ll be on the tennis ladder this year. We lost five seniors from last year, so all of the spots are mixed up during this early season.”
At age two, Cummings developed her first episode of cholangitis and had additional bouts in 2010 and 2011 that also required hospitalization on antibiotics.
“Each episode would last about a week,” Cummings recalled. “I would miss school, so that would put me behind. I also missed my friends by being in the hospital. They would come visit me.”
Cummings subsequently was diagnosed with Sclerosing Cholangitis and showed evidence of portal hypertension and cirrhosis – all of which put her on a list for a liver transplant in May 2012.
With that list being ranked by the MELD (Model End Stage Liver Disease) scores, Cummings had a low score and her diagnosis did not mesh well with the scoring system. The doctors told her family that she needed a transplant as soon as possible.
With the assistance of the Yale Transplant Team, the Cummings family sought a donor. Within three months, they located one – a young man named Brady Dolan who was about to become a father. Dolan had to first undergo a battery of tests and the transplant took place August 14, 2012.
“We posted a Facebook article regarding how I needed a new liver,” Cummings recalled. “When Dolan read the article, he selflessly decided to help. He was an anonymous donor before the operation, but we have since met a couple times.”
With Cummings resultantly missing school and not being able to participate in athletic competition for six months, she had to make certain adjustments. Despite those challenges, Cummings has continued with her sterling academic accomplishments. Among them, she ranks near the top of her class of 300 students and will graduate on time this spring.
In an effort to give back to others similarly afflicted, Cummings has been highly involved with the American Liver Foundation for more than 10 years. As part of that, she spearheaded efforts through the Liver Life Walk Team that raised more than $40,000 toward liver research seeking cures.
“I started out by doing a walk in Madison when I was still young,” Cummings said. “I sent out a bunch of letters to family and friends asking them to donate to the Walk Team, and we drew a few hundred walkers for the 5K walk event. One year, I was the walk ambassador.
“In addition, my sister Meghan and I were involved with the production of 30-second public-service announcements done by the local NBC television affiliate. I was involved by myself when I was in second grade, and then Meghan and I collaborated on another PSA when I was in the sixth grade. We both had speaking parts, so that was interesting and fun.”
Not content with just helping individuals with liver diseases, Cummings has diversified into raising funds for other deserving medical-related causes.
“I was part of the ‘Relay for Life’ that raises money for cancer research for a couple years,” Cummings said. “I had a friend in seventh grade whose uncle had cancer. My great-uncle had cancer, and my grandmother also had it and she beat it.”
Now approaching three years with a new liver, Cummings feels that the transplant has been successful for her.
“Ever since I left the hospital from the transplant, I’ve had no problems – it’s been pretty great,” Cummings said. “Playing sports really doesn’t present a risk to my liver – the doctors told me to go back and play ice hockey. I don’t think getting hit by a hockey stick presents any more risk to me than to anyone else.”
According to Daniel Hand High School Athletic Director Craig Semple, Cummings embodies the many positive traits that the Spirit of Sport Award represents.
“Grace is a very determined athlete; her work ethic is probably her greatest strength,” Semple began. “She’s very smart, very persistent and anticipates where to go on the playing field.
“In addition, Grace is a kind soul – which is not a weakness. She’s a competitor, but she’s not going to trip someone, for example. She understands what sports are all about. If a player from the other team falls, she will pick her up. Her sportsmanship is second to none, and she is a model student-athlete in both academics and athletics.
“Grace also doesn’t make excuses for herself, has kept up with her studies, and is particularly strong in math. She hopes to use those math skills to pursue a career in engineering. I think that someday she will probably invent something.”
Next fall, Cummings will attend the University of Notre Dame, where she will major in engineering.
Chicago Music Student Selected 2015 Heart of the Arts Award Recipient
In recognition of his many impressive accomplishments and undaunted courage, Ethan Gray of St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago, Illinois, has been selected the recipient of the 2015 National High School Heart of the Arts Award. He will receive his award June 29 at the NFHS’ 96th Summer Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.
A four-year member of the marching, symphonic, jazz and liturgical bands, Gray is also a member of the St. Rita Theatre Club, where he excels in acting, lighting and as a stage crew person. In addition, he has been highly involved with art and drawing, and has been selected both artist of the week and artist of the month.
However, what makes Gray’s accomplishments truly remarkable is the fact that he has genetically inherited sickle cell disease and thalassemia, which among other things necessitates undergoing a monthly blood transfusion for the rest of his life.
“It’s a rare type of sickle cell normally passed down by both parents,” Gray explained. “Both of my parents had the gene. My three older siblings didn’t get it, but I did.
“I go in on a Tuesday to see where my blood levels are in terms of sickle cells coming back. Then on that Friday, I’ll go in and sit four or five hours in a comfortable chair where they have two kinds of needles inserted in the left side of my chest. One takes out my blood and the other puts in the ‘new blood’ replacing the ‘old.’ My mom usually takes me there and then back home afterward. I’m generally tired going into it, but after the transfusion I usually feel better.”
The genetically inherited disease led Gray to be hospitalized at a young age for maladies such as pneumonia, acute chest syndrome and other life-threatening diseases. In addition, he experiences debilitating episodes known as “pain crisis” that can occur at any time when parts of his body are deprived of blood and oxygen due to the sickling of his blood cells.
After being homeschooled in grade school in order to help limit his exposure to germs, Gray enrolled at St. Rita. There, he joined several clubs, but none came more naturally than that of the music programs. Musically inclined from a young age, St. Rita opened up several new avenues for Gray, including playing in the school marching and jazz bands.
“When I first got to St. Rita, I joined the Paintball Club. I didn’t get to go on any outings as I was sick my freshman year. Later that year, I joined the Spanish Club and the school yearbook club. They asked me to draw the cover drawing for the yearbook ‘The Cascian’ when I was a freshman. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I joined the bowling team and then theatre in the middle of that same year.
“I started with music in general around age five. I found a stray guitar with just three strings and self-taught myself to play. However, I started music formally the year before I enrolled at St. Rita. I played guitar at our church – the Metropolitan Community Church.”
Not content to be limited to just one musical instrument, Gray picked up on an amazing 11 different instruments.
“Because we had so many instruments lying around the house when I was little, I’d find an instrument I liked and played it. Those included the saxophone, trumpet, guitar, ukulele, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, clarinet, flute, drums, harmonica and a little of piano.
“My overall favorite is the ukulele – after playing guitar so long it was easiest for me to pick up. Similar to the ukulele, I also liked the acoustic guitar since no amp’s necessary and it’s so easy for me to carry around. I’d rate bass guitar third and saxophone fourth.”
With the exception of a month-long hospital stay during his freshman year, Gray remained relatively healthy during his first 2½ years of high school. He had to take some precautions, such as needing to go inside to get warm to avoid a pain crisis when playing with the band at cold-weather football games, but overall, things went well.
However, that changed in April 2014 when he suffered a stroke in the school theatre. The stroke resulted in the monthly transfusions becoming a lifelong reality for Gray, but he has recovered and persevered.
“I had the stroke during theatre practice my junior year. All of my blood was thick and prone to clogging up an area. When I was onstage practicing, I felt pretty tired and noticed a big drop in my system – my hearing and eyesight were going out.”
Despite all that he has endured and his many activities at St. Rita, Gray somehow still finds time to give back to his community. He plays music at two churches, has built homes for the underprivileged as a part of his youth group, played guitar for sick children at his hospital, and volunteers at Garden Center Services and 115 Bourbon Street, which help the handicapped and veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, respectively.
“Once in a while, you get a kid who inspires you and Ethan is that type of kid,” said St. Rita Director of Bands Cindy Gradek. “He has a quiet presence about him, and his classmates love him. However, I think the school is going to be blown away when they hear his story. Most kids outside of band don’t know what he goes through.”
“I feel that Ethan’s greatest attribute is his humility – he really understates the talent, passion and creativity that he has,” said St. Rita Principal Brendan Conroy. “He is not one to go around bragging about things. He leads by example, and I get the feeling that he’s a guy who will pursue his dreams.”
While music will always be a part of Gray’s life, his long-term goal is to establish a career with his other artistic abilities. He plans to pursue collegiate studies in game design illustration and animation, with the ultimate goal of one day drawing comic books for Marvel or D.C.
As far as his college choice is concerned, Gray is currently deciding between Saint Xavier University and Columbia College, both located in Chicago.
John Gillis is NFHS associate director of development.