LUCAS — Riley Gossom has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.
The Lucas senior is surrounded by a loving family and a supportive community bigger than he ever imagined. His high school basketball coach can’t say enough good things about him and college coaches from Bluffton to Marietta are lining up to secure his services.
On top of all that, Gossom celebrated his 18th birthday in mid-November.
“Eighteen is kind of a big one. I’ve got a lot to be be grateful for,” Gossom says with a wistful laugh before reflecting on the ups and downs of the past month. “There are certain things that I’m kind of … I’m just happy to be here.
“It could have been a lot worse.”
‘It’s something I’ll never forget’
There was nothing remarkable about the morning of Oct. 26. For Gossom, it was like every other day in the coronavirus-impacted world.
“I take all of my classes online and I was finished for the day, so I went to lift,” Gossom says. “I had finished lifting and was on my way home when it happened.”
Gossom was eastbound on Ohio 39 approaching the intersection of Ohio 603 in his gray 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix. As he crested a small hill just past Mt. Zion Road, he was struck by a 2018 Chevrolet Malibu driven by Aaron Carlson, 31, of Loudonville.
According to the accident report filed by the Mansfield Post of the Ohio Highway Patrol, Carlson was westbound on Ohio 39 when he went left of the centerline and struck the vehicle driven by Gossom. Both Carlson and Gossom were transported to OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital by Monroe Township Fire and EMS crews. Carlson did not survive.
“Right when I came over the top of the hill, he was right there and we hit head-on,” Gossom says. “As far as the actual accident, I don’t remember anything. Right when it happened I think I went unconscious. I regained consciousness once the EMTs got there.
“The EMTs had to smash the windows and cut the doors off. The motor and the front of the car were basically in the front seat and kind of resting on my leg. They had to get all of that off me before they could get me out of the car so it took like 45 minutes to an hour just to get me out.”
Taylor Iceman, Lucas’ athletic director and boys basketball coach, was busy preparing for the Cubs regional semifinal football game against McDonald, which Lucas would host the following Friday. It had rained the week before and Bob Wine Field was a little sloppy, so Iceman had a maintenance crew coming out to the school.
“I was just getting ready to walk out to the football field when Riley’s stepdad (Charles Toms) called me. He was kind of flustered and he said, ‘Riley was in an accident.’ I asked if he was OK and he said, ‘Well, I think he broke his leg.’ I was thinking that wasn’t horrible,” Iceman says. “I asked him where it happened and Charlie said it was right outside of Lucas so I hung up the phone and took off real quick.
“When I got to the top of the hill where I could see where it happened, they had the road shut and there were ambulances and fire trucks and I remember thinking, ‘This is a lot more than I was anticipating.’
"I pulled off the road and jogged up there and Riley was still pinned in his car and they were trying to cut the doors off. A couple of the EMTs were Lucas guys and I knew them and they told me it wasn’t good.”
Iceman pauses for a moment, revisiting the scene.
"I haven’t seen a lot of car crashes, but this was bad,” he says. “It's something I’ll never forget.”
News Travels Fast
Like in a lot of small communities, news travels fast in Lucas. Iceman had barely made it back to school before the questions started coming.
“It was close enough to the school that people could hear the sirens and you’re in a small town so everybody knew something was going on,” Iceman says. “I came back to the office and one of the secretaries asked me what was going on.
"I was kind of flustered at that point so I went and got the principal and told him what happened.”
Gossom’s younger brothers, Corbin and Logan Toms, were both still in class. Iceman had to break the news to them.
“I got Corbin and Logan out of class so I could talk to them. When they saw me they knew something was wrong,” Iceman says. “They said later they thought I was talking to them because they were going to be quarantined.
“It caught them off guard and they were both a little shocked. It was toward the end of the day and (football coach) Scott Spitler doesn’t have a class the last period of the day. I told them to go get their stuff and they could hang out with coach Spitler for a little bit instead of going back to class. They were upset, but I told them that we are extremely lucky that Riley was alive.”
By that time, the news of Gossom’s accident had begun to spread through the halls.
“I had seen Cathy Grover, our girls basketball coach, and she asked me what kind of car Riley drives, so I told her it was him in the accident,” Iceman says. “People were starting to figure it out. I ran into Ethan Sauder, one of Riley’s good buddies, in the hallway. He was on his way to see the trainer before football practice so I pulled him aside and told him.
"Then coach Spitler informed most of the kids because a lot of the basketball kids play football, too. They were in shock.”
A trauma team was waiting for Gossom at OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital. The team assessed his injuries and prepped him for emergency surgery.
It was about that time that Jody Toms, Gossom’s mother, arrived at the hospital with her husband. She had deliberately been kept away from the accident scene.
“I’m an emotional person anyway. I would have completely fallen apart,” she says. “It’s a mother’s worst nightmare.”
The immediate prognosis was not good. Both the tibia and fibula of Gossom’s right leg were broken in two places. The bones had ripped through the skin, causing nerve damage.
The force of the impact — “There were hardly any skid marks,” Iceman says. “He didn’t have time to hit the breaks.” — caused Gossom’s lung to collapse.
“The trauma doctor came out and told us they had to put a chest tube in, and he had broken several bones in his leg and he would need surgery as soon as possible,” says Jody Toms, who graduated from Loudonville and played on the Redbirds’ 1993 state championship softball team. “Riley hadn’t eaten or drank anything that day so they were actually able to get him into surgery quicker. If he had eaten lunch that day, we would have had to wait.
“Shortly after they got his leg and chest tube stabilized we were able to go back and see him. Probably within 30 minutes, they had him in surgery. They needed to do it as soon as possible.”
Dr. Matthew Bernhard was the orthopedic surgeon on duty. The procedure to repair Gossom’s leg lasted about two hours.
“Dr. Bernhard said he had one chance to fix it. There was no going back,” Jody Toms said. “At one point, we weren’t even sure if he was going to be able to keep his leg after talking to the trauma doctor.
"Dr. Bernhard said he would do his best. Dr. Bernhard is very good at what he does. I felt better just knowing Dr. Bernhard was doing the surgery on Riley.”
Gossom spent a total of 11 days in the hospital before being released. Jody Toms and Bobby Gossom, Riley’s father and the basketball coach at Galion, kept vigil at their son’s bedside.
“Because Riley was a minor at the time, his dad and I were allowed to be there. Only one was allowed to spend the night and once you got there, you weren’t allowed to come and go,” Jody Toms says. “You had to spend the entire day or night. We were lucky because he turned 18 on Nov. 13. It might have been a different story if he was no longer a minor.
“His dad stayed the night and I would get there in the morning and stay throughout the day and into the evening. As a mom, there’s nothing harder than seeing your kid lay there in pain.”
A New Outlook
Riley Gossom was finally cleared to return home on Nov. 5, about a week ahead of his 18th birthday. Neither Gossom nor his mother look at life the way they did before the accident.
“It could have been a lot worse. I’m very fortunate to come out alive, let alone with all of my limbs still attached,” Riley says. “The fact that I should make a full recovery, I’m definitely really lucky.”
His mother agrees.
“My first thought was basketball. How bad does that sound?” Jody Toms says. “Then you see the pictures of the car and it totally changes your perspective. He’s just lucky to be alive.
“At Thanksgiving, that’s what we talked about. We sat at the dinner table and said how thankful we were that he was with us. It totally changes your perspective on what’s really important. We’re not thinking, ‘We lost a senior basketball season.’ Now we’re thinking, ‘an empty seat at the dinner table is a lot worse than missing the basketball season.’ ”
Road to Recovery
Doctors have told Riley Gossom they expect him to make a full recovery. The college coaches that were recruiting him before the accident are still courting him and Riley plans to play somewhere, although he hasn’t decided yet.
“Heidelberg, Bluffton and Marietta are my top three. There’s five or six other schools that are interested, all Division IIIs,” Riley says. “There’s a couple more that I like and I’ve got a couple more visits next week. I’m going to take all my visits and weigh all my options and then make a decision in December.”
While his physical scars will heal, Riley still has to deal with the emotional aftermath of the accident. He’s coping with it better than could be expected.
“He’s handling it like a champ. That kid is so strong,” his mother says. “Not once during any of this has he shed a tear. I don’t even know what to say. He’s staying positive.
“I kept thinking at some point he was going to emotionally or mentally crash. I think he realizes how lucky he is to be alive. He’s never felt sorry for himself. He’s readjusted his goal. It’s not about what records he could break this year. It’s about getting healthy.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Gossom occasionally finds himself getting edgy when he’s riding in a vehicle.
“I’m OK for the most part. I don’t get freaked out or anything,” he says. “There are certain times, when going up hills, I get tense. I’m pretty much OK.
“The worst part for me is basketball and not being able to play. That’s the hardest part for me.”
Gossom was on pace to become Lucas’ career scoring leader this winter, breaking the mark of 1,335 points set by former teammate and 2020 graduate Logan Niswander. Gossom needed just 48 points to reach 1,000 and 383 to become the school’s new scoring king. He scored a single-season record 566 points last year.
Additionally, both Corbin and Logan Toms were expected to play on the varsity team alongside Gossom this winter. Corbin is a sophomore and Logan is a freshman.
“You were maybe going to have all three of them out there on the floor at the same time. There was a very good chance that all three of them would get to play together and that’s a cool thing,” Iceman says. “I know that bothered Riley and the family more than the other stuff.”
Riley still attends practice every day. He runs the clock from the scorer’s table and finds himself dispensing the same advice Iceman has given him the past three years.
“It’s been kind of funny because I’ll get ready to tell the kids something and he’ll say a lot of the same things I was going to say. I told him the other day that I wasn’t sure if he listened to me but he heard me because he says a lot of the same things I do,” Iceman says with a laugh.
“I’ve told people that, if something like this had to happen I’m glad it happened when it did because we have practice every day and Riley can be there and is still part of the team and he gets to see everybody.”
The Lucas community has always thrown its full support behind its athletes. In Gossom’s case, the love from his home community — and others around north central Ohio — has been overwhelming.
“That’s one of the things that’s been tremendous, not only from the Lucas community but from everybody in Richland County and the surrounding communities,” Gossom says. “Coach Iceman has had coaches from all over the state contact him and ask how I’m doing.
“When I was in the hospital, I had people send me cards that I didn’t know. They were friends of friends or people from surrounding areas that heard about what happened. It’s been pretty great.”
The teachers in the district launched a letter-writing campaign while Gossom was still in the hospital. Jody Toms says letters continue to arrive.
“High school kids don’t understand the impact they make on younger kids. All these kids were writing letters and saying, ‘You don’t really know me, but …’ It is cool for him to see how much he really did impact people,” Iceman says. “It’s good for him and helps him keep his mind off some things.”
Then there is all the food.
“I would call and ask if there was anything I could do for them and they would say, ‘We have so many people bringing us food to the house,’ so I had to tell people to hold off for a week or so,” Iceman says with a laugh. “People were just bringing heaps and heaps of food over and they couldn’t eat it fast enough.”
Shelby and Lucas recently staged a Foundation Game fundraiser with the proceeds of the event helping to defray the cost of medical expenses. The event raised more than $12,000. In addition, OHReport founder and president Brian Skowronski and his team have raised more than $6,000.
“We have exceeded our expectations,” says Skowronski. “People are still contacting us to find out how they can donate.”
Gossom’s better-than-expected recovery and the show of support made for a happy 18th birthday. Gossom celebrated the milestone on Nov. 13, just days after he was released from the hospital.
“We couldn’t have a big party, but it meant a lot to be able to celebrate his 18th birthday,” Jody Toms says. “We all realize how fortunate we are. We have a lot to be thankful for.”