Many college graduates throughout central Ohio will exit the weekend with diplomas and degrees.

Some might have a job on the horizon. Some might be bubbling with ambition as they leave one chapter for the next.

Not every graduate will finish college feeling certain of his or her life’s purpose.

But Gabe Gemberling sure will.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning and afternoon newsletters

The 23-year-old Ohio State University student and Brutus Buckeye mascot remembers the tint of the sky outside a conference room about a year ago, the way the sun made a symbolic turn to clouds as he sat there.

He remembers the way his mother and girlfriend began to cry when doctors told the fun-loving, energetic Gemberling that he had a tumor growing in his right arm.

There was talk of surgery and biopsies, and, eventually, osteosarcoma, the term for Gemberling's malignant tumor that starts in the bone and is most commonly found among adolescents and young adults.

Cancer.

Gemberling refused to learn the name at first.

“I was so set that I wasn't going to learn the name of the cancer because I was going to beat it before I had to learn the name of it,” he recalled.

“Really, from the get-go, he sort of attacked this thing with just a positive attitude about it,” recalled Dr. Thomas Scharschmidt, surgical oncologist at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State. “… One of his first comments was ‘Man, I’m glad this is me and not someone else that has to go through this.’”

Gemberling, of Canton, played lacrosse and was manager of the basketball team in high school, but he never considered himself particularly athletic. So when a friend approached him about trying out to be Brutus in Ohio State’s spirit program — a role that came with a Division I student-athlete designation — Gemberling could hardly take it seriously.

“I laughed at it for, like, a long time,” he said.

After some convincing, Gemberling tried out for a spot as Brutus during the spring semester of 2017.

Coaches were struck by Gemberling’s energy during tryouts and his interpersonal skills during the interview portion of his audition, and they gave him a spot on the team.

“That’s the biggest thing,” said Ray Sharp, head mascot coach at Ohio State and a former Brutus himself. “Gabe was just very enthusiastic about being there.”

Being a student-athlete at Ohio State meant that Gemberling had quick access to trainers, medical tests and doctors after he noticed the odd growth and discomfort in his arm last spring.

“I just remember thinking, it's crazy how yesterday, I was Brutus, visiting patients in the James, to now going in to be one of the patients," he said.

Gemberling had two surgeries at Ohio State, the second of which, in June, removed the tumor and a large portion of bone in his humerus, Scharschmidt said. Doctors inserted part of a cadaver bone, a plate and screws to reconstruct his arm.

Gemberling's recovery sidelined him from the Brutus costume for much of the Buckeyes’ football season, but under doctors’ watchful eyes, he was able to step into the big nut’s shoes — and head — for a brief pre-game appearance at the Michigan game in November. He continued in his role through the rest of the school year at other games, alumni events and fundraisers.

Now cancer-free, Gemberling is graduating with a degree in construction systems management. But he won’t be crossing the stage at Ohio State’s commencement ceremony Sunday, when the university will award a record 12,213 degrees at Ohio Stadium, with the forecast calling for a mostly sunny sky and the temperature in the low to mid-60s.

Instead, he left Saturday for Washington state, where he plans to climb Mount Rainier with a childhood friend. He’s scheduled to reach the summit exactly one year after receiving his cancer diagnosis.

When Gemberling returns, he will start a job in Columbus as a field engineer with Turner Construction, a position that appealed to him because of the company’s role in building the James and Ohio State's planned new hospital tower, to be completed around 2025.

Gemberling hopes to be part of the team working on the new tower.

“I hope that I can one day be part of building a place that’s going to house the cure for cancer,” he said.

Outside of work, Gemberling will be busy supporting cancer research as an advocate with the Next Gen James Ambassadors and the Steps for Sarcoma 5K fundraiser.

He’ll also be gearing up for Pelotonia. When another former Brutus — the friend who encouraged Gemberling to try out for the role — was diagnosed with a different form of sarcoma last year, the pair knew they wanted to find “cancer’s kryptonite.” Their peloton, which includes other former Brutus mascots and spirit-program members and friends and family, has a goal of raising $30,000 for cancer research.

Gemberling believes his cancer diagnosis was “the best-worst thing” to happen to him.

“I'm very fortunate to have found my passion in life at a very early age,” he said. “I think everybody's constantly kind of searching for that ‘Why,’ you know, what’s your Why, what do you want to do in life?

“And for me, it's definitely philanthropy, in one day finding a cure for cancer.”

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola