#Charleytough Getting Stronger Amid Outpouring of Support

By Tim Robinson
Special for MHSAA.com

March 11, 2021

On a recent evening at the home of Corunna boys basketball coach John “Rocky” Buscemi and his wife Chloe, the household is a whirlwind of activity.

Their daughter Charley, 5, darts in and out of the Buscemis’ home office to ask questions, mimic riding a horse, or whatever else comes to the mind of a little girl full of energy.

The only thing that would tell you that cancer had interrupted their lives for five months in the fall and winter is the hair that just now is starting to grow on Charley’s scalp.

Shock, then Support

Charley Buscemi is named after her grandfather, Charley Silm, who refereed high school basketball for 22 years in and around mid-Michigan when he wasn’t working on the farm. He often took his daughter, Chloe, to games he worked when she was a youngster.

“I remember packing up my little bag with snacks and watch my dad officiate,” Chloe Silm-Buscemi recalled. “Even though I didn’t play basketball, I grew up in the gym, just like Charley did.”

Her daughter has grown up watching her dad coach. She confidently refers to Corunna players as “her boys” and announces that she wants to coach with him some day.

Last summer, Charley was having trouble sleeping, and sleep apnea was diagnosed. Her doctor advised that removing Charley’s tonsils would likely eliminate the apnea.

Corunna Buscemi FamilyThe Buscemis agreed, and her tonsils were removed Sept. 25.

“We knew nothing else,” Chloe said, “but apparently the doctor noticed that one of the tonsils looked abnormal, or a little awkward, so he sent it off for testing.”

Chloe said she was told that any complications might require another operation to stop bleeding in the area, but she was stunned when the doctor’s office called back Oct. 1.

“We didn’t know the testing had been done,” Chloe said. “We got a call that said ‘the findings of the pathology are consistent with a diagnosis of lymphoma.’ And we were like, ‘Wait. What?’ It caught us completely off guard. (Charley) was racing in circles around our kitchen island and our dining room table, and I was like, no, you’ve got the wrong kid here. There’s no way this kid has cancer.”

“Initially, it was, this can’t be right,” Rocky said. “I was trying to read between the lines and find some wording that gave some idea that this is what they think. I tried to hang onto the idea that there’s got to be more tests, and those tests will show us that it’s not (cancer).”

The diagnosis was correct. Charley had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s a fast-growing cancer that affects B-lymphocytes, a type of blood cell that helps fight infection.

While it is a fast-growing lymphoma, it’s considered potentially curable.

The cancerous cells found in Charley’s tonsil were sent to the Mayo Clinic and the National Institute of Health, and the diagnosis was confirmed.

Charley began chemotherapy at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing and celebrated her fifth birthday there.

Chloe, meanwhile, was also navigating the second trimester of her pregnancy.

“I spent most of my second trimester sleeping on a cot in the hospital while she got chemo treatments,” Chloe said.

“Her first round of chemo was horrible,” Rocky said. “She didn’t react to it well, and we were there 20 of 25 days.”

Corunna boys basketball 2But once word got out, people in the Corunna school system, neighbors, fellow coaches and others reached out in the Buscemis’ time of need.

“The schools were so understanding,” Rocky said. “Once we found out, it was, go be with your family. Put in for your (Family and Medical Leave Act). Everyone was supportive from that end.”

The Corunna basketball players drove out to the Buscemi home and raked up its leaves. Some Corunna alumni got together to string up Christmas lights, the Orchard Lake St. Mary’s team sent her a giant stuffed panda, and many more showed support.

“We’re working on thank-yous now,” Chloe said. “My mom says people would know if you posted a thank-you (online), but I want to be able to send something out. Right now there’s something like 250 thank-yous.”

Strength & Sliver Linings

Charley had two rounds of chemotherapy and has been pronounced cancer-free. She has monthly meetings with her oncologist and quarterly CT scans scheduled for the next year.

“They’re watching her heart, because the chemo can affect that, so we meet with the cardiologist,” Chloe says.

“It’s a lot for a little person,” she adds as Charley flits back and forth between parents, announcing at one point she has cleaned her plate at dinner with no small amount of pride. “But for the most part, she’s just like this. She’s pretty happy, pretty easy-going, and takes it in stride. Sometimes I struggle with it more than she does. You feel totally helpless.”

For Rocky, the whole experience is full of silver linings, however hard-won.

“You’re always trying to find the silver linings,’ he said. “We had no idea she had cancer, but the silver lining was once we found out what it was, and it was confined to the tonsil, the blessing was it was almost a miracle we had her tonsils removed almost at the same time it was starting to develop. It wasn’t found anywhere else, so that’s a silver lining.

“Recently she’s been diagnosed as having celiac disease, and we’ve been given the OK to (shift) to a gluten-free diet. If she hadn’t had cancer, we might not have known until she was a teenager and had permanent damage. We’ve been so fortunate and blessed to find things out when we did.”

The Buscemis talk in tones of awe and appreciation for the caring and other gestures that have come their way.

“It’s incredibly humbling,” Rocky said. “It makes you want to do for someone else. I’m much more aware of people in need, and I hope to pay it forward. There are a lot of people you wouldn’t have anticipated reaching out who have reached out.”

The fear and stress of that time, he said, are often near, even with Charley in the clear.

“I wanted to be strong for Chloe and my family and be that rock that could be leaned on,” he said. “But man, oh man, there are still mornings when I drive to school and tear up. It’s nice to have other guys who understand that or have been through it. I’d be the rock here (at home) and then I’d be emotional with my friends in the coaching fraternity.”

Charley and 3-year-old brother Sam were mainstays at practice last year, playing quietly in a corner of the gym while the team practiced. Charley was at most every game, and Rocky always made a point of looking for her and her mother in the stands.

That hasn’t been the case this year, as Charley’s immune system has been weakened by the chemo and has kept her at home this season, watching the Cavaliers play on her mother’s laptop.

There’s been another change, too.

Corunna Buscemi Family 2“I’ve adopted a one-day-at-a-time, appreciate-every-moment approach,” Rocky said. “A year ago in 9-degree weather, I might have been trying to find reasons not to go outside. Now if Charley wants to go sledding, we’re going sledding!”

He laughs as he says that, a man who has a new appreciation of things.

His players have been honoring her, too, wearing black T-shirts at warmups with a large unicorn on the front with the hashtag #Charleytough and the Corunna logo on a basketball.

As for Charley, she will go back to kindergarten next year, but at the moment, she’s anxiously awaiting the birth of her brother or sister March 22.

She already has informed her parents that her new sibling will be a girl, named Maggie, and wants the newborn to sleep in her room.

“She says, ‘Mommy, I’ll feed the baby,’” Chloe said, chuckling. “I told Rocky we don’t have to worry about parenting a third baby. Charley’s got it.”

Besides another new brother or sister, if all goes well, Charley will be back on the sideline with her dad and her basketball team next winter.

Rocky says his family’s experience, among other things, showed him how strong the ties are in the coaching community.

“It was nice to see the game be the bridge that allowed me to reach out and depend on people a little bit,” he said “Without it, you don’t have those relationships. Things like this make you realize how special those things really are. If you don’t experience it, you don’t get to understand people’s true motivations.

“It was humbling,” he added. “It was scary at times, but all in all it was a little bit of everything that helped us to be able to get through this.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Charley Buscemi and her dad Rocky enjoy a fun moment at home. (2) From left: Charley, Rocky, Chloe and Sam Buscemi. (3) Corunna players wear #Charleytough T-shirts as warm-ups for their games. They prominently feature Charley’s favorite animal, a unicorn. (4) Charley’s immune system isn’t robust enough for her to attend games in person, but she never misses a chance to watch “her boys” play on her mom’s laptop. (Photos courtesy of the Buscemi family.)

E-TC's Witt Bulldozing Path from Small Town to Football's Biggest Stage

By Jason Juno
Special for MHSAA.com

June 28, 2024

Ewen-Trout Creek graduate Jake Witt is playing for a spot on the Indianapolis Colts’ 53-man roster. The memories of high school sports, and the impact they’ve had on his journey to the NFL, have stuck with him through his college days and even now as a professional.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosThe 300-plus receiving yards he went for in a game against the eventual 8-player state champion back in 2017. 

The regular-season basketball game where 3,276 fans turned out to watch his Panthers play just a few months later.

The teamwork prep sports taught him. The family atmosphere he got to be a part of on the high school football team.

“Football was definitely the sport I felt the most family-type feeling with it,” Witt said earlier this week after fishing on Erickson Lake while back in the Upper Peninsula before training camp begins next month. “That’s what drew me back to wanting to play football in college, was my opportunity in high school to play and getting that feeling with the guys and that family-oriented feel.”

Witt played two years of high school football. He lined up exclusively at wide receiver for Ewen-Trout Creek as a junior and then was more of a blocking tight end when E-TC and Ontonagon joined forces as a co-op program when he was a senior.

He ultimately decided to play basketball first in college, at Michigan Tech. But two of his three finalists were football opportunities.

“Obviously playing basketball from second grade on, people would probably assume that I would want to play basketball in college,” Witt said. “I think that just goes to show that football in those two years had a big impact and obviously it led me to where I am when I played at Northern and where I am today.”

Witt played only one year of basketball at Tech. He transferred to Northern Michigan University to attend as a student only before being talked into playing football. 

He was initially a tight end there before moving to tackle because of injuries during a game against Ferris State. He dominated, not allowing a sack or even a quarterback pressure against what was considered the best Division II defensive line in the country. 

He stayed at tackle for what was left of that season and then all of his final year at Northern. Despite his limited time at the position, he had the attention of NFL scouts and entered the draft. The attention reached a fever pitch during his pro day at Central Michigan when he wowed with his athleticism. His 9.92 Relative Athletic Score, a way to measure players’ athletic testing while accounting for their size, was one of the best for an offensive tackle prospect since it began being used in 1987.

Witt, right, umpires a baseball game last summer.He was drafted with the 236th pick, in the seventh round, by the Colts in 2023. 

His first training camp was cut short due to a hip injury, and he was then placed on season-ending injured reserve. But he’s back healthy and ready to go. He practiced at second-string left tackle during the offseason camp this spring and now hopes to earn a spot on the 53-man roster with training camp set to begin in a month.

“I want to go into training camp, play well and then play well enough to where they can’t release me off the 53,” Witt said. “The next goal is to play in a game. And I think that will start with special teams, that will start with field goal. And then from there, obviously, everybody is one week of great practice away from playing with the offense, one injury away from playing in a game with the offense.”

Those who watched him during his high school days in the U.P. likely wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that happen.

Witt is still the only receiver to go for 300 or more receiving yards in 8-player football in state history, according to the MHSAA record book. And he did it twice, a 325-yard game against Eben Junction Superior Central as a junior and the 305-yard performance against Crystal Falls Forest Park as a senior.

The Ontonagon co-op team had mostly stuck to running the ball that season, but looked for Witt through the air against the eventual state champion Trojans.

“I think it was 345 (yards), I think they sent in the wrong number,” Witt said. “That was one game where we switched things up with our offensive attack and threw the ball a lot more, and it ended up paying off for us very well. We were down big at halftime, and we pushed back and we were in a battle with them in the second half. It was a great game. We didn’t end up winning, but it was a lot of fun.”

He enjoyed both years of high school football – even while mostly blocking on the line as a senior despite having shown previously to be a more-than-capable receiver.

Witt warms up during the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie camp in May 2023.“A lot of the offense wasn’t focused on me anymore, which was great,” Witt said. “It made me a much more well-rounded football player. It made me a much better athlete, it gave me a better perception on things as a football player versus just being a receiver. I think both years were great for different reasons.”

Witt said every sport he played in high school was beneficial to him going forward. Basketball, for example, taught him teamwork and coordination. 

“And just relationship building is huge; for me, it helped me move on to the professional football level,” he said.

No high school game was quite as memorable for him as that regular-season basketball game at Michigan Tech on a chilly Wednesday night in Houghton.

Ewen-Trout Creek and Dollar Bay were tied atop the U.P. small-school poll. With that type of matchup, and the chance for fans in the Copper Country to see the 6-7 Witt and his above-the-rim play that’s pretty unique in the U.P., the game was moved from Dollar Bay’s tiny gym to Michigan Tech. (He wasn’t quite 300 pounds like he is now, but he was close – and he came into that game averaging 27 points and 16 rebounds per game with no one able to match his size and strength.)

They expected a crowd; they got 3,276. The latest arriving fans had to sit on the floor on the baseline.

“You don’t see that very much in Division 4 basketball even in the playoffs,” Witt said. “Just having that atmosphere, and especially having it between two of the best U.P. teams at the time, and having the storyline that was behind the game was great – and one of the most memorable events to this day still for me.”

Witt is looking forward to the challenge of training camp and achieving his goals in Indianapolis. But he’s not rushing away a U.P. summer. 

He helped out at last week’s U.P. Football All-Star game. He was happy to provide insight for any players headed off to play college ball, and they helped the Marquette County Habitat for Humanity with the finishing touches on one of their houses.

Over the next month, he’ll still be training, going over the playbook and doing position skill work. As happy as he was to help out last week, he’s happy to be on the lake again, too, fishing like a normal Yooper.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do, that and train,” Witt said. “Just trying to destress before I get back into it.”

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Jake Witt played for Ewen-Trout Creek during a 2018 basketball game at Michigan Tech, and at right Witt takes a photo with area youth baseball players last summer. (Middle) Witt, right, umpires a baseball game last summer. (Below) Witt warms up during the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie camp in May 2023. (Photos by Jason Juno.)