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From brain surgery to college basketball: A high school athlete's resilient ride

Recent Dublin Coffman graduate Aidan Dring: "A special young man from a special family, and he gave it every ounce of energy he had every day."

By Aaron Blankenship | Photos courtesy of Scott Dring

Aidan Dring surprised and inspired his coaches and teammates by returning to the Dublin Coffman basketball team’s starting lineup in time for the Shamrocks’ season opener in the fall, less than three months after undergoing brain surgery.

Despite having his stamina severely weakened by 33 grueling radiation treatments that concluded just days before the start of his senior season, the shooting guard served as a lockdown defender and averaged five points playing limited minutes.

“It’s still amazing to think back to what Aidan had to fight through just to be able to return to our team,” said Coffman coach Jamey Collins, whose injury-riddled squad finished 9-12 overall. “First, he had to make it through a scary and difficult surgery. Then he had more than a month of radiation that sapped him of his energy and conditioning, and left him with a fuel tank that got emptier quicker than anyone else.

“But’s Aidan’s a special young man from a special family, and he gave it every ounce of energy he had every day, and it was so fulfilling to see him come back and contribute the way he did.”

Feeling exhausted and frustrated at the conclusion of his senior season, Dring initially decided to quit pursuing his longtime dream of playing college basketball.

But after Collins convinced him to reconsider, Dring quickly felt his competitive itch return, and he agreed to resume visiting Division III college basketball programs.

It didn’t take long for Dring to find the right home, as he made a verbal commitment to play basketball at Baldwin Wallace University on April 12.

Aidan Dring Baldwin Wallace

“It’s crazy to look back at everything that I’ve been through, and I’m really grateful because I wouldn’t have this opportunity without the help of a lot of different people,” Dring said. “It felt nice to relax for a while because I still wasn’t 100 percent (healthy) by the end of my senior season.

“But I had a long talk with Coach Collins that made me rethink my decision, and I realized that I’ve been working toward this goal my entire life, and if I didn’t go for this now, I might not be able to do it later, and I probably was going to regret it.

“This feels good because I’ve worked really hard for this, and I deserve it.”

After Coffman’s basketball coaches and athletic director Duane Sheldon made it known that Dring was looking to play college basketball, he was invited to visit Baldwin Wallace in early April.

Sheldon was the head coach at Baldwin Wallace from 2008 to 2015, leading the Yellow Jackets to a 98-83 record in seven seasons.

“My visit to Baldwin Wallace was a really cool experience,” Dring said. “It’s a really nice campus and I had lunch with their current players, and everything there just felt right.

“I’m really thankful to my coaches, especially Coach Collins, Coach Sheldon and (Coffman assistant coach) Tyrel Jackson, because they taught me so much about the game and did so much for me to get to this point.”

Dring was recruited by Baldwin Wallace head coach Tom Heil, who has led the Yellow Jackets to a 101-70 record in seven seasons, after serving as Sheldon’s assistant for five seasons (2009-14).

Collins said Heil is getting a gem of a leader and multifaceted player, after watching Dring gradually return to full health over the summer. 

No longer feeling drained from his radiation treatments, Dring has continued to regain his ability to be a menacing defender who handles, distributes and shoots the ball with a deft touch.

“(Heil) saw Aidan when we played at Baldwin Wallace last summer when he was at his best, and he felt like he’s a risk worth taking,” Collins said. “After some rest, Aidan looks like Aidan again, and I feel like Baldwin Wallace is going to get rewarded for their faith in him, because he’s one of the best young men and teammates that anyone can have.

“At first, I was just happy that Aidan has been able to fulfill his dream of playing college basketball. But when I’ve seen him play recently and make a move on the court that shows his true capabilities, I now think that this son-of-a-gun has a chance to be a nice college player who is going to help Baldwin Wallace.”

Aidan Dring graduation

Scott and Jenn Dring are incredibly proud of their son, especially after witnessing Aidan’s mental and physical toughness when his health rapidly declined late last summer.

Aidan had high expectations for his senior season, after averaging 8.1 points and being named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district while leading the Shamrocks to a 12-7 record as a junior.

However, Dring began having dizzy spells and feeling nauseous in August, and he became so ill on his way to a recruiting visit to Allegheny College in early September that he had to abruptly return home and go to the hospital.

That’s when an MRI revealed that he had a large ependymoma tumor growing near the lower part of his brain stem. Ependymomas are rare cancerous tumors that start in the brain or spinal cord. 

Just six days after the tumor was found, Dring had brain surgery.

“When they told me they had found a mass on his brain, it felt like an out-of-body experience, and I lost all control and started crying,” Jenn Dring said. “Aidan was stoic, but he was frightened about losing the life he knew and no longer being able to play basketball.”

On Sept. 9, renowned neurosurgeon Jeffrey Leonard removed the tumor from Dring’s brain during an eight-hour surgery, as Scott and Jenn spent their 21st wedding anniversary praying for their son in the waiting room.

Dring returned home just three days after his surgery, and he surprised his teammates and coaches when he started attending Coffman’s open-gym sessions two days later.

However, Dring then had to endure 33 consecutive days of radiation therapy treatments, beginning in late October and concluding on Nov. 24, which severely drained his energy.

“What Aidan was able to accomplish by making it back to our team was unreal, because words can’t describe what it was like seeing him when he was at his lowest moment (of recovery),” said Ryan Lynn, who has been Aidan’s best friend since kindergarten and graduated from Coffman alongside him in late May. “It was surreal having Aidan back on the court with us during our last open gym, because not long before that, he couldn’t even walk.

“Aidan didn’t have the season he was hoping for, but he contributed, and he motivated us to want to get the best out of ourselves every day. There were times when some of us were not feeling well because we were banged up or sick, but then we would look at how hard Aidan was playing after having brain surgery and he wasn’t even complaining at all, and that made all of us want to follow in his footsteps.”

Dring received streams of letters and tweets with words of encouragement from countless people, including college coaches, high school coaches and players from other teams.

Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann sent Aidan a video message wishing him a speedy recovery, and gifted his family with three tickets right behind the Buckeyes’ bench for a home game.

A large community gathering was held in Aidan’s honor the day before his surgery, and his older brother, Tyler, drove home from the University of Cincinnati to support his family during the surgery.

Liv Dring — a rising senior at Coffman and Aidan’s younger sister — and his basketball teammates painted the large rock outside Coffman’s football stadium white. Students from Coffman and Jerome had put green and gold handprints on the rock in a unified show of support for Aidan before the Celtics and Shamrocks squared off in a football game on Sept. 10.

Several Coffman football players put Aidan’s No. 23 uniform number on their ankle tape before playing Jerome. And after the Shamrocks defeated the Celtics 49-42 in overtime, Coffman’s players posed for a picture at midfield with Liv, who held up a large photo of her brother.

“The entire central Ohio basketball community, and so many other people, were amazing through this process, and we are very grateful for their support,” Jenn Dring said.

Dring was cleared to begin participating in full-contact practices once again in early November, and he worked his way back into Coffman’s starting lineup by the time the season opened.

Despite also being further drained by a nagging virus that knocked him out of the starting lineup for multiple games in January just as he was regaining his confidence and beginning to hit his stride, Dring kept grinding away in practice and in the classroom.

Dring scored a career-high 18 points in the Shamrocks’ 66-56 loss to Hilliard Bradley in their regular-season finale on Feb. 18, and he was honored with the Scholar Athlete award in the Ohio Capital Conference-Ohio Division for maintaining high academic and athletic standards.

“I worked really hard, but I never got my stamina all the way back,” Dring said. “I had about 80 to 90 percent of my previous energy level for the first two minutes of games, but after that it would plummet to only about 50 percent, and I would feel worn down as I continued running up and down the court. It was frustrating.

“But my teammates gave me the energy I needed to keep going, because they trusted me to play and be a leader, so it was 100 percent worth all of the hard work I put in, because I got to play with these guys and be a part of that team one more time.”

Dring plans to major in sports marketing, with the goal of earning a spot in Baldwin Wallace’s starting lineup.

Jenn Dring said her son has already proven to be a major success story, regardless of how many minutes he plays or how many points he scores for the Yellow Jackets.

“We’re so proud of Aidan,” Jenn said. “The fact that he has accomplished what he’s accomplished the last 10 months is astounding no matter what he does at Baldwin Wallace. We’re very fortunate because some families might have crumbled under these circumstances, and I want to make sure we don’t ever lose the sense of gratitude for how we’ve come through this and what we have.”

Collins said he won’t be surprised to see Aidan continue to excel in basketball at the next level.

“During the last three weeks, Aidan’s energy has returned, and he’s starting to resemble the all-league player he was before all of this happened,” Collins said. “It says a lot about the character of Baldwin Wallace’s program that they still could see his potential, and now we’re all really excited about his future.

“This was an emotional rollercoaster of a season. I couldn’t have shed any more tears for Aidan than I have already, but what’s special is most of them have been for joy instead of sadness because Aidan has continued to pursue and achieve his dreams.”