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Fairland’s Steeler Leep hugged Chesapeake’s Braxton Oldaker near the middle of Chesapeake’s Norm Persin Court on Jan. 4.

Oldaker, Chesapeake High School’s sophomore forward whose stepmother Michalle, 54, died one night earlier, appreciated the gesture of consolation from Fairland’s junior guard. Other Dragons offered messages of support, but Oldaker noticed Leep’s was more heartfelt. Little did Oldaker know how deeply Leep felt his pain.

Leep’s father, Rusty was in a hospital bed himself, also a victim of cancer. Two days later, Rusty Leep, 47, died.

“He came over and gave me a hug and told me he was praying for me and told me I was very strong,” Oldaker said of Leep. “At the time, I didn’t know what was going on with Steeler’s father. Once I figured it out, I got in contact with him and told him I was praying for him and if he needed to talk, I was here. He seems to be a good kid and a good ballplayer as well.”

Oldaker scored a career-high 18 points that night and Leep 10 as the archrivals battled through two overtimes before the Dragons emerged with an 88-86 victory. The game was big, but didn’t compare to the love the two players shared.

“My dad was in the hospital for 24 days,” Leep said. “I told Braxton, ‘I know how you feel, and I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure she’d want to see you out here playing today.’ That’s exactly how my dad was. I know he’d want me to be out here playing.”

Oldaker said it was as if Leep knew his thoughts. The Panthers standout then played the game of his life.

“I just felt really loose,” Oldaker said. “I know my stepmom was with me that night. She was a factor. She was my sixth man. I felt really comfortable in my game. That’s what she would’ve wanted.”

The day after Rusty Leep died, Steeler took to the court against North Adams and scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 63-45 victory. Steeler Leep said he thought of Braxton Oldaker again that night and remembered the words he shared with his rival, encouraging him for playing.

“My dad always preached to be tough,” Leep said. “I appreciate all he taught me about toughness. I try to apply it to everything I do — sports, life, school. He would have wanted me to play.”

Oldaker and Leep said they have struggled with the deaths. Both hoped their loved ones would see them get married and have kids of their own. Both, though, said they are at peace.

“I’m not angry with God,” Leep said. “I’m not. You just have to wonder why. How do some terrible people live a long healthy life and my dad devoted his life to Christ, family and community and lives such a short time. I’ve come to the realization that God wants to have him home. He’s better off. He’s suffered so much. Six years ago they gave him 20 months to live. He beat that sentence. We’re stingy. We want him for more time, but I’ll see him again.”

Rusty’s love for the Pittsburgh Steelers resulted in his son’s name. Steeler’s teammate, senior guard Aiden Porter, came up with the idea to try to send Leep, his mom Shawna and sister Holli to the Steelers’ playoff game Sunday night in Kansas City. Porter flooded social media requesting tickets from the team. Pittsburgh running back Benny Snell Jr. responded with tickets for all of them.

“He took time out of his day to do something like this,” Porter said of Snell. “I couldn’t be more thankful.”

Nor could Steeler Leep. He said Porter’s gesture would mean so much to Rusty Leep. Leep said the game will be emotional.

“They weren’t just husband and wife, they were best friends,” Steeler Leep said of his mom and dad. “They did everything together. Holli wanted him to walk her down the aisle. I wanted my dad to see me get married, grow up and be a good dad of my own. I wanted to learn a lot more from my dad. He was a good man. He was a very good man.”

Tim Stephens is a sports writer with The Herald-Dispatch.

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