In the fall of 2008, the senior class at West Hall High School boarded a bus and went to Brian Ernst’s house.
It was homecoming and Ernst, a senior who had been diagnosed with cancer five months earlier, was in the throes of fighting the disease his mother Donna referred to as “the beast.”
He was unable to attend school, unable to walk on his own. But to his classmates, he was far from unable to enjoy the events surrounding their final homecoming. So, in their bus they picked him up and with him, celebrated.
It was a great gesture for a young man who, according to West Hall assistant principal Scott Justus, “saw the best in people when they were at their worst, and gave his best while fighting the worst disease.”
Tuesday morning, Ernst lost his battle with cancer, five days after turning 19 years old.
“I can’t believe he’s gone, I really can’t,” said West Hall athletic director Greg Williams. “He was always smiling and in a great mood.
“He was one of those young people that was just a pleasure to be around.”
Ernst was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a malignancy found in bone or soft tissue, on May 23, 2008.
A year and a half later, on Oct. 2, 2009, after enduring intensive treatments that included heavy chemotherapy and radiation treatments and over 40 units of blood, he had his final preventative chemo treatment and was dubbed a cancer survivor.
A standout pitcher for West Hall prior to his diagnosis, Ernst’s focus turned from fighting for his life, to fighting to return to the diamond for the Spartans in 2010.
Thanks to the work of Williams, Ernst, who was supposed to graduate in the spring of 2009, had been granted an extra year of eligibility by the Georgia High School Association.
“(Ernst) went with us to Forsyth to the hardship hearing and captivated a whole group of men while telling his story,” Williams said. “You could have heard a pin drop in that room while he was talking.
“When he was finished, the men voted unanimously to give him an extra year, which is a hard thing to earn.”
While working to get his body back in shape to play baseball, Ernst felt pain in his back.
What was first thought to be an exercise-related injury turned out to be a tumor that, when removed in early January, revealed that the cancer had returned.
“His whole family gave everything they had to fight the disease,” Justus said.
“They were so dignified in their fight,” added Williams.
In what was described by both Williams and West Hall High teacher Rebecca Smith as a somber atmosphere Tuesday at the school, Ernst was remembered.
“He was a true Spartan,” Smith said. “He never wavered in his determination and fight.”
And for those who knew him best, he was fondly honored.
“I thank Brian for allowing me to be a part of his life,” Justus said. “He was so caring and always there for everyone else.
“I’m in my 38th year of life and I don’t know if I’ll ever be the kind of person Brian had become in his short time.”
Williams and Justus visited Ernst in the hospital March 5, and according to Justus it’s a visit he’ll never forget.
“He was tired and in pain and hurting, but when we walked in he said, ‘How are y’all doing today,’” Justus said. “He gave us 10 minutes of Brian, knowing it was going to take every ounce of his strength, because he never wanted you to feel sorry for him.
“Brian was blessed with so much, but his greatest strength was his mind. The cancer took his body, but it never touched his mind. He was an amazing person and I truly loved Brian Ernst.”