October 17, 2012

A life-saving gift

More news about: Cortland State
John Stephens had no idea who his bone marrow saved until a couple of months ago.
SUNY-Cortland photo

John Stephens looked across the hotel room at the lively 2-year old jumping up and down on the bed, her smile stretching from ear to ear and her giggles filling the room with joy.

He looked at Clara Boyle with the love and devotion a brother might have for a younger sister, and with the amazement and pride a parent might have for their child. But Stephens, a junior linebacker at Cortland State, and Boyle are not related by blood. Nearly 20 years and 3,000 miles had separated Stephens and Boyle, but a simple cotton swab brought them together.

If not for Stephens, Boyle would not have been jumping up and down on that hotel bed in Cortland, N.Y., this past Saturday night. If not for Stephens, Boyle likely wouldn't be alive today.

It was Stephens' bone marrow -- a perfect match for Boyle -- that allowed her to fight, and ultimately defeat, acute myeloid leukemia, a rare cancer that attacks the blood cells. A process that began in May of 2010, when Stephens, then still a high school recruit, registered with the National Marrow Donor Program through the "Get in the Game, Save a Life" initiative, culminated this past weekend with the Boyle family paying a visit to Cortland to watch Clara's hero play against Brockport State.

The Boyles arrived Friday and met with the Stephens family Saturday morning before the game. After a short news conference to address various media outlets in attendance, the two families took to Cortland's football field. There, Clara palled around with John and his 11-year-old younger brother, Tom Stephens.

"It hasn't really hit me yet, that what I did for her is allowing her to be there in that moment running around with my little brother," John said. "... I was able to do something so simple for me, the choice for me to make was so simple, and it changed this family's life dramatically. It's heartwarming for me and my family."

What started out as a 10-minute paperwork and cotton swab session turned into something John could have never imagined.

In October 2010, during his freshman year at Cortland, John received a phone call from the National Marrow Donor Program. It turned out he was a potential match for a 17-month-old girl. At this point, John indicated he was interested to going along further in the process. He completed the next step and submitted additional blood work.

The tests showed the rarest of results -- John was a perfect match for the girl. Just like that, John was set to donate in November 2010. But before he could, he learned that the girl -- still unknown to John at this time, per the registry's privacy restrictions -- was now battling aspergillus, a fungal infection capable of killing someone so young in such a physical state.

Clara fought off the infection, and John was still ready and willing to donate. On Jan. 11, 2011, John underwent the hour-long procedure to withdraw bone marrow. John was knocked out with anesthesia while doctors withdrew marrow from his pelvic bone though his lower back. The doctors took four times as much as they thought was needed as a precaution, but it was all needed in the end.

John said he had a sore back for the next day, but by two days after the surgery, he was back in the gym training with his father, Paul. The bone marrow, meanwhile, was shipped to the Boyles, who call Menlo Park, Calif., home. Clara received the transplant on Jan. 12, 2011.

Clara was declared fully healthy and cancer-free this past August, but for what seemed like the longest time, John didn't know what happened, or who it had happened to.

Clara wore John Stephens' No. 34 on Saturday at Cortland State.
SUNY-Cortland athletics photo

Contact between donors and patients isn't permitted until the outcome of the procedure is known. John filled out his contact information this past winter, a little more than one year removed from the surgery. In August, he received an email from Clara's mother, Brooke. John read it on Aug. 3 and, one day later, spent two hours on the phone with Brooke and Alan, Clara's father.

Brooke could not be reached for this story, but according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, she told John on Saturday: "I look at you and I feel like I am looking at a relative -- like you are my brother or my son. You feel like family."

Since that first phone call, John has exchanged text messages and had Skype sessions with the family. But it was John's father who suggested the Boyles take the six-hour flight to the East Coast for a visit.

"That was unreal," John said of this past weekend. "That was the best moment, to actually see Clara, to see Brooke, Alan and Rose, her [11-month-old] little sister."

Clara, who has been subjected to more hospital time, needles and chemotherapy in her two short years than anyone deserves in a lifetime, showed no signs of distress Saturday as she bounced around on the field in a No. 34 Cortland jersey.

"She's very smart for a 2-year old, and she loves football," John said. "She was having a blast out on the field before the game. ... She loves being around people, she's a people person. She makes friends so quickly."

John, a Goshen, N.Y. native and physical education major with a 3.3 GPA, hopes to teach physical education, coach and perhaps work as a gym trainer after he graduates. Clara is too young to know what she wants to be when she grows up, but whatever dreams she realizes in her life, John will always be a part of them. 

And, of course, since the Boyles have now seen the Stephens' neck of the woods, the favor has to be returned.

"My parents are already looking into a vacation over the summer to go down to California and visit them," John said.

Alfred punishes St. John Fisher

Alfred isn't exactly revolutionizing the game of football. The Saxons are simply grinding down teams with a punishing running game and a pounding them with a staunch defense. None of this is groundbreaking, but all of it is effective.

Alfred's 26-13 win over then-No. 11 St. John Fisher served as a blueprint for its plan this season. The Saxons rushed for 201 yards -- led by Chuck Beckwith's 148 yards -- and held the Cardinals to just 45 net rushing yards on 24 attempts.

Defensively, Alfred picked off three Ryan Kramer passes and forced two fumbles, both of which it recovered. Alfred scored all four of its touchdowns on the ground, including back-to-back runs by Beckwith and Jonathan Ruffin in a four-second span just before halftime.

The numbers support Alfred's success to this point. The Saxons rank 36th in the country in rushing offense, 12th in rushing defense, 29th in total defense, 22nd in scoring defense and 28th in interceptions. Through five games, Alfred has 14 sacks and 10 interceptions. By comparison, the team only had 18 sacks and 13 interceptions in 11 games last season.

In the larger scheme of things, Alfred has re-emerged as a legitimate contender in the Empire 8. The Saxons have won their last four games after a season-opening loss to RPI, which now doesn't look as bad, considering RPI's 5-1 start.

Alfred travels to Salisbury this Saturday for a crucial matchup. Salisbury has yet to lose in Empire 8 since joining the conference last season, and since Alfred plays just nine games this season, the game becomes even more critical. Could 7-2, with wins over Ithaca, St. John Fisher, Buffalo State and (for argument's sake) Utica be enough to get Alfred in as a Pool C team? Call me skeptical. But the Saxons could take full control of the conference with a win Saturday.

St. John Fisher, on the other hand, has no choice but to win out if it hopes to return to the playoffs. However, an 8-2 record with wins over Thomas More, Washington and Jefferson and a handful of Empire 8 teams could get them in. Hey, it worked last season.

Delaware Valley, Albright, Lebanon Valley hanging around

The top two contenders in the MAC, Widener and Lycoming, were both idle this past weekend, but there was plenty of action from the teams chasing them in the standings.

Delaware Valley (38-0) and Albright (45-0) notched impressive shutout wins against King's and FDU-Florham, respectively. Lebanon Valley held off Wilkes 21-13.

With four weeks left in the regular season, Widener and Lycoming sit atop the conference with identical 5-0 MAC records. Delaware Valley, the four-time defending champion, is one game back at 4-1, but the one loss came to Lycoming in its second game. Albright and Lebanon Valley face longer odds, but sit just two games back at 3-2.

The above scenario should come as little surprise to anyone that follows the MAC. This is about the point in the season where there's a noticeable divide in the conference between the top four or five teams and the bottom four or five.

The Saturday meeting between Widener and Lycoming looms large. If the Warriors win Saturday, they face a remaining schedule that includes Wilkes, Stevenson and first-year program Misericordia. Now, you can never assume wins, but those three teams are a combined 4-14 overall this season. If Widener wins, it will still face a crucial matchup in the season finale against Delaware Valley.

Albright and Lebanon Valley are likely facing situations in which both teams would have to win out to win a MAC title. It's unlikely, but not impossible. The path is easier for Albright.

A few words on Mike Welch

It's easy to get caught up in wins, losses and stats. It's football and we're all fans -- it's what we do.

But it's important to sometimes take a step back and remember something important -- it's just a game. Win, loss, 100 yards or zero yards, it's always just a game.

That's why Sunday's news that Ithaca coach Mike Welch would be taking an indefinite leave of absence to undergo -- and recover from -- heart bypass surgery is a sobering reminder that football should never come before your health or family.

I know Welch, both from my days at Ithaca up through my time with D3football.com. This is his 19th season as the Bombers' head coach. To put it in perspective, I was eight years old when Welch took over the team for the 1994 season. Welch, who had to replace a legend in Jim Butterfield, has done admirably. Welch has coached exactly 200 games, and has won 142 of them (71 percent).

Welch is out indefinitely, but he told the Ithaca Journal he will take his recovery on a "week-to-week basis." He has every intention of returning to the sidelines to coach, which is admirable. But again, I mind myself thinking, "it's just a game." If Welch never coaches again, his place is secure in Ithaca lore. His focus for now needs to be on recovering. With only four games left in a season that likely won't feature any postseason games, it might make sense for Welch to target 2013 for his return.

Defensive coordinator Mark McDonough will assume the head coaching duties in Welch's stead. 

Top 25: Three idle teams move up

Hobart, Widener and Rowan all moved up in the D3football.com Top 25 poll despite being idle this weekend.

Hobart climbed one spot to No. 11, Widener moved from No. 17 to No. 14, and Rowan moved up five spots to No. 17. Salisbury held steady at No. 7, while St. John Fisher dropped from No. 11 to No. 24. Alfred cracked the top 25 at No. 21.

RPI, Cortland State and Lycoming also received votes this week.

Quick hits

Joe Benedetti rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown and Dan Griffin added 72 yards and two TDs on the ground as Salisbury pounded Hartwick 37-7. Paul Moore returned a fumble 12 yards for a touchdown, one of five turnovers the Sea Gulls forced in the game. ... Matt Ambrose returned an interception 21 yards for a score -- one of six turnovers forced by Cortland State's defense -- in the Red Dragons' 45-27 win over Brockport State. Bronson Greene and Dorian Myles combined for 234 rushing yards and three touchdowns. ... Mike Hermann passed for 285 yards and three touchdowns -- all three to Reggie Colas -- in RPI's 31-21 win vs. Rochester. Dustin Schuld's 65-yard interception return for a touchdown as the third quarter ended put RPI ahead for good. ... Christian Bailoni threw for 236 yards and four TDs and also scored on a 36-yard touchdown run to lead Kean past William Paterson 45-33. Darius Kinney added 136 yards and a score on the ground for Kean. ... Andrew Benkwitt (333 yards, three TDs) was great, but Utica's defense was even better in the Pioneers' 41-0 thrashing of Frostburg State. Utica held Frostburg State to just 10 first downs and 168 total yards of offense, while forcing three turnovers in the process. ... Rashad White returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown as Montclair State continued its up-and-down season with a 24-14 win against TCNJ. The Red Hawks snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 3-4 overall. ... Ryan Lehotsky connected with Zach Best on a 42-yard touchdown pass in relief of starting quarterback Casey Kacz to lift Buffalo State past Ithaca 21-14. ... Freshman Jonathan Marrero passed for 164 yards and four TDs and rushed for another 144 yards and three touchdowns as Springfield routed Merchant Marine 66-13. Marrero, in just his third start, tied the school record for TD passes in a game. ... Emmanuel Johnson scored on a one-yard TD plunge in the final minute to lift Morrisville State to a 34-33 win over Western Connecticut. Jory Tanner tossed three TD passes in the win, which was Morrisville State's first of the season. ... In a relatively quiet week in the East region, the following teams all had bye weeks: Rowan, Widener, Lycoming, Stevenson, Misericordia, Hobart, Union, WPI and St. Lawrence. 

Looking ahead

First place in the NJAC will be on the line when Cortland State (5-1, 5-0) hosts No. 17 Rowan (5-1, 4-0) at noon Saturday. Cortland enters on a five-game winning streak, while Rowan has won four in a row. Cortland won by three in last year's meeting. Expect another close contest.

Likewise, the top spot in the Empire 8 will be up for grabs when No. 7 Salisbury (5-1, 3-0) hosts No. 21 Alfred (4-1, 3-0) at noon Saturday. Alfred has notched back-to-back impressive wins against Ithaca and St. John Fisher. But a road game against the Sea Gulls is the Saxons' stiffest test yet.

Want yet another game with first place on the line? Then you'll want to follow Widener (6-0, 5-0) at Lycoming (5-1, 5-0) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Widener emerged with a three-point win a year ago, and this year's matchup figures to be another tight game.

Other games of note: Hobart (6-0, 3-0) at RPI (5-1, 3-1), noon, Saturday; Ithaca (4-2, 2-2) at St. John Fisher (4-2, 1-2), 4 p.m., Saturday.

Contact me

I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is an associate news editor for ESPN.com and a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has contributed freelance work to ESPN Rise and has been a regular contributor to D3football.com since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing. A native of Hyde Park, N.Y., Andrew currently resides in New Britain. 

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov 

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