Wrestling team's spirit shows in its support for assistant coach

THE WILDE Lake Wild Cats wrestling team has changed its team chant. At matches the past four Saturdays, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks team has delivered a heartfelt cheer in support of assistant coach Aaron Worley.

Worley, 18, is battling leukemia.


"Not only do they go, 'One, two, three! Wilde Lake!,' " said coach Phillip Levin. "[They also say] 'One, two, three! Coach Aaron!' That is their focus. Every match we wrestle for him."

The 20 or so students, ages 6 to 14, wrestle against other teams in the Recreation and Parks league every Saturday at Hammond High School in Kings Contrivance village. Throughout the match, the Wild Cats collect money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (previously known as the Leukemia Society of America) in honor of Worley.


They pass purple donation buckets around the bleachers and talk to members of the crowd about their assistant coach.

"I kind of think of him more as like a friend than just a coach," said team member Fitz Malloy, 13, a pupil at Dunloggin Middle School.

"[The fund raising is] really important to us," he said.

In the first three weeks of fund raising, the team has received more than $600. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society -- a national nonprofit group -- will use the money for research.

Levin said the students are learning meaningful lessons through fund raising.

"I tell them on a daily basis that wrestling is like life," he said. "You have to overcome very difficult obstacles. You have to overcome illness. You have to overcome stronger opponents."

Young coach

A 1999 graduate of Wilde Lake High School, Worley was a wrestler for three years with the Wilde Lake High School Wild Cats -- the wrestling team carries the same name as the Recreation and Parks team -- and ran track.


Two weeks before graduation, Worley learned he had leukemia.

He had been unusually tired, running a slight temperature for about a week.

"He didn't feel like going to track practice," his mother, Ann Worley, said. "And then didn't feel like going to school."

His parents took him to the doctor, who gave him a blood test.

"And the next day he was getting chemotherapy," his mother said. "It was a nightmare. This couldn't be happening."

Worley graduated in a small private ceremony arranged at Johns Hopkins Hospital Children's Center. By October, he was in remission.


He had been accepted for admission to Bethany College in West Virginia, but because he was not able to enroll in the fall, he began working at the Bagel Bin in Wilde Lake. He volunteered to assist Levin, who was coaching Worley's two younger brothers -- 14-year-old twins Bruce and Mark Worley.

Levin made Worley assistant coach. The team loves him.

"He really knows stuff, like, from a student wrestler point of view," Fitz Malloy said.

Last month, Worley was told he was no longer in remission. Now he is at Johns Hopkins Hospital, recovering from recent chemotherapy treatments. He is scheduled for a bone marrow transplant next month.

"Despite everything, he still has a sense of humor," Ann Worley said.

Her son plans to attend Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania -- one of his top choices -- in the fall.


"Aaron has a strong faith," Ann Worley said, "Religious faith in God that's helped him pull through.

"It's helped us, too," she added.

Dedicated volunteer

Levin, who lives in Harper's Choice, has run marathons to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society the past two years. He has coached Recreation and Parks' Wild Cats since 1996.

When he appointed Worley as his assistant coach, Levin didn't know Worley had leukemia.

He learned about it one Sunday morning when he went to see his son, Ben Levin, now 10, run a 5K race sponsored by Howard County Striders in Columbia's Town Center.


Worley was running that day.

Weakened by his illness and treatment, Worley finished last -- to cheers of friends and family, Levin said.

"Our bond really started right about then," Levin said, "because here was this charity that I had been sponsoring and just feel very close to. And then, all of a sudden, here was this person that I knew, that I was becoming closer to, [who] had just finished chemotherapy and treatment for the disease that I had been " raising money to fight.

Levin, an attorney in private practice in Baltimore, runs his fund-raising marathons as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team In Training program.

The program encourages marathon participants to raise money using the story of someone in their neighborhood who is struggling with leukemia or lymphoma.

Levin plans to run a marathon in April in Nashville, Tenn., in honor of Worley.


Last year, Levin ran in Cincinnati to recognize Morgan O'Brien, 8, a student at Swansfield Elementary School who has leukemia, and his mother-in-law, Roseann Sikorsky, an Ohio resident with lymphoma.

Levin did not know his mother-in-law was ill when he joined Team In Training in 1998. Now he says he believes his work with the program is part of God's plan. In his first two marathons, he raised more than $10,000.

Levin's son, Ben, is a member of Recreation and Parks' Wild Cats team. He said that knowing Worley has changed the way he feels about fund raising.

"It feels different than just, like, helping other people that I don't know," Ben said. "You feel different because you know someone with leukemia."

To contribute to the team's fund-raising effort or to Levin's marathon, send checks to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, c/o Phillip Levin, 1111 Park Ave., Sutton Place, Baltimore 21201. To find out more about the Team in Training program: 410-825-2500.