The athletic rivalry between Oak Park and River Forest and Fenwick High Schools is usually competitive and intense. The boys’ soccer match on Sept. 25 between the two — won by OPRF 1-0 on a first-half goal by Easton Bogard — was certainly no exception.
But it is what happened afterwards that makes both schools proud community institutions. Players and coaches from both teams walked from the Dominican Priory in River Forest to the house of Owen Petrzelka in Oak Park as part of the 2021 Run Tough for Owen virtual 5K. They were honoring Owen, a 6-year-old who died Oct. 6, 2020 of a rare aggressive brain tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG. It is a cancer primarily found in children between the ages of 4 and 11 and the long-term prognosis is poor for those who contract it. The survival rate is virtually zero.
The walk raises money for the ChadTough Defeat DIPG Foundation.
“On Easter Sunday (in 2020), Owen scooted to my parents’ house, and then that Tuesday (April 17, 2020), he just couldn’t stand,” said Amanda Shaker, Owen’s mother. “We rushed him to Lurie for an MRI and discovered the tumor in the brain. He was an awesome and active kid until he wasn’t.”
Shaker is the cousin of Fenwick player Ethan Briggs, who came up with the idea for the walk.
“Ethan and his teammates have been incredibly wonderful. They’ve been very generous with their time,” she said. “They’d come over and play video games. They were a light for our son. (Owen) was awesome and made an impact on my cousin, his friends, and the greater community.”
Briggs was originally going to do the walk by himself, but then Shaker and the family asked if his teammates and head coach Craig Blazer would join him, and they agreed. Then OPRF head coach Jason Fried reached out and asked if he and his team could come along. According to Shaker, the response was “a quick and enthusiastic yes.”
“It’s a big game and rivalry, and Owen would have been so proud,” she said. “I went to both Fenwick and OPRF (as a student), and Adam (Petrzelka; Owen’s father and Shaker’s husband) is a Huskie. I think it’s really great for kids these days that in your world, there’s something fierce about a rivalry like this. But if you’re able to step back, there are bigger and more important things going on in the world than a friendly rivalry that can get heated. You can do kind things for other people and even if you’re rivals, you can do them together.”
Adam Petrzelka was grateful for the outpouring of support from both the Friars and Huskies.
“It’s great to see young people step up like this,” he said. “It’s been a very difficult time, but it’s great they know what to do in times like this. It says a lot about this community. It’s spectacular.”
“It’s also a reminder to teammates and opponents that everyone’s going through a lot,” said Shaker. “(Fenwick) would go to practice and then come here to take care of our son. They showed a lot of strength just by showing up.”
Both Petrzelka and Shaker want to ensure that Owen is not forgotten, and events like Saturday’s go a long way towards doing so.
“Owen made an impact on a lot of these players last year, and he is continuing to do so,” Shaker said. “He’s inspired them to be kind and do things that bring folks together. As a parent who’s lost a child, you want to make sure they’re not forgotten, and so doing something like this helps ensure Owen has a legacy of kindness that we want to pass on.”
“There’s more to it than a game,” said Petrzelka. “Coming together for this walk and to help us spread awareness will help Owen’s legacy carry on.”
Until his diagnosis, Owen, who attended Mann Elementary, led an active life. He was a player in the EDGE Soccer Program, and Shaker believes the courage, strength, and sense of humor he displayed in his final months will forever impact the family and community.
“He had a laugh that made us tell people he was okay. He laughed so hard and it was contagious,” she said. “He had some wonderful lines we called ‘Owenisms.’ Among them were, ‘Always be kind’ and ‘It’s our job to make people happy.’ He loved having friends and playing sports. Ethan and his friends were a huge part of his life. He was excited to be a part of this community.”