By Wayne Witkowski
A unified show of support from New Egypt High School’s boys basketball team, the school and the community has bolstered one of the Warriors’ players in his fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Anthony Rinaldi was fulfilling his hopes for a strong season in the starting lineup as one of the team’s top scorers, but it came to a shattering halt after he detected a lump in his neck in mid-January.
“I was told it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma stage IVA, and I was devastated at first,” Rinaldi said. “I did not expect that. It’s changed my life forever.”
Rinaldi said the doctor told him the odds are 95 percent in his favor if he does his part. But it’s a daunting challenge.
Rinaldi recently finished his second barrage of chemotherapy at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and will return for four days of treatment every three weeks for the next four to six months.
“I was combing my hair and saw it come out in clumps, so I decided to buzz it,” he said.
Others did the same. Head coach Mick Hughes, assistant coach Ron Tortoriello and the players on the team shaved their heads in a show of support. Rinaldi said he didn’t know they were doing it until he went to a game and saw it.
“I really appreciate it,” he said. “It was overwhelming when I walked into the gym and saw their heads shaved.”
“He’s a great kid,” Hughes said. “As a team, we tried to show our best we were thinking of him all the time and that he’s still part of the team.”
Rinaldi returns to school for classes at times when he feels well enough and sees some other students not on the team with their heads shaved as well.
And the team in warm-ups wears purple t-shirts — the color for cancer awareness — with the inscription “Together We Fight” with Rinaldi’s jersey No. 21 on the back. The t-shirts also were sold to students to raise funds to help the Rinaldi family pay his high medical expenses. Cookies also were sold at games as a fundraiser.
It inspired one of Rinaldi’s friends on the team.
“Not just [inspiring] me but the guys on the whole team,” junior teammate Ryan Devine said. “It was cool shaving our heads. It was teamwork working together and working harder for Anthony and getting him as many wins as possible because it was weird not seeing him in practice and in games.”
New Egypt won its last two games and finished 10-16 with many close losses, which was a big jump from the previous season when it won only one game while starting three freshmen.
“This speaks volumes about Anthony himself,” New Egypt Director of Athletics Philip “Flip” McGuane said. “He’s truly a great kid and a heck of a basketball player and there’s his school spirit and involvement. He’s truly liked by everyone — students, faculty and community. It’s, ‘What else can we do for him? What else?’ He has stepped up to the plate right now with no complaints, just quiet courage to put his best foot forward.”
There is a GoFundMe website and fundraisers that people are doing for the Rinaldi family, including one that took place Feb. 27 at a packed Mangia Restaurant in Jackson Township and another planned for March 11 at Around the Corner Art Center in Freehold Township where people for $40 each can bring their own wine but paint their glass under instruction and take it home. All proceeds from that event go to the family.
Rinaldi went to the event at Mangia and said he tried to eat a little but the chemo treatments and the injections he takes to keep his white blood cells up have diminished his appetite.
“I was overwhelmed by the amount of people there. I was shocked,” Rinaldi said.
“What a great community to be a part of,” said a parent of one of the boys basketball players who did not want to be named because she did not want it to take away from Rinaldi. “I have neighbors living on both sides of me who have cancer but when I heard this, I thought, ‘Holy cow.’ We were all shocked. Because this is a smaller community and school system, everyone is close. It’s nice having such heartwarming people here. It’s nice to see a school system, teachers and kids who are there for everybody.”
On the court for New Egypt, Devine scored 16 to lead a 49-35 victory over South River High School Feb. 26. Sophomore Owen Raab scored 18 and sophomore Anthony Burr added 14 in a 54-50 victory over Palmyra High School the following day to close the season.
All three starters return next year along with all but two graduating seniors — Gino Tortoriello and Matt Frank.
“We’re sending those two guys out on a high note and making sure Anthony knows we’re thinking about him,” Hughes said. “We’ve had to learn to play very hard and to be focused for 32 minutes.”
Also returning are starting sophomore forward Quinn Kimmick and backup guards Matt Dempsey and Cody LaCava, both sophomores, and junior forward James Sonday.
And Rinaldi said he expects to be part of things for next season.
“He certainly can beat this,” Hughes said. “He’s one of the toughest kids around. He’ll always fight this, for sure. We’ll do our best to support him.”
“They say everything looks good. I hope I’ll be done with this in less than the four to six months,” Rinaldi said. “It’s been tough trying to adjust to what I have to do. It’s a little bump in the road. I was looking forward to this season because I had a tough sophomore year being injured all the time. But senior season is when I have to make it count the most.”
Rinaldi, no doubt, will make the most of every opportunity after what he’s been through.