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Villanova's big drive

Football has become second to bone marrow donation

Posted: Friday September 14, 2007 3:42PM; Updated: Friday September 14, 2007 7:07PM
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Villanova coach Andy Talley makes it mandatory for his players to give a tissue-type sample for a possible bone marrow donation.
Villanova coach Andy Talley makes it mandatory for his players to give a tissue-type sample for a possible bone marrow donation.

Andy Talley was afraid Michael Holland might tackle the neurologist.

Holland, Talley's middle linebacker, got walloped in the head, got a concussion and then got a doc who thinks he needs to miss a couple games. The 6-foot, 230-pound truck has been waiting two years to start for Talley at Villanova and he'd just had a monstrous 11-tackle game at Maryland. The thought of sitting out, and not playing -- it wasn't sitting well.

Then Holland found out he might have to miss even more games. Some 50-something-year-old woman with cancer -- who he's never met -- needs his bone marrow. Now Holland's doing cartwheels.

"It's totally different," Holland said, swearing he hasn't gone crazy. "Missing games because of my own health is ridiculous. Missing games to save someone's life... that's cool. I feel like I won an award."

It's an award Talley's been aiming for for nearly two decades.

The Villanova coach first heard the phrase "bone marrow donation" 17 years ago, while listening to a radio program with an oncologist on as a guest. The doctor was talking about how marrow could be a lifesaver for people with leukemia and lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases, but how only 30 percent of those people ever found a match within their family. The doctor said the donor registry was so thin, the percentage for any match was basically miniscule. The football coach in Talley knew that was a horrid conversion rate.

"It seemed like a lot of people dying needlessly to me," he said. "Then I thought, I have this great resource -- 90 healthy football players."

And so Villanova's annual donor drive was born. Before the spring game, every spring since then, the Wildcats have signed people into the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry. Talley's paid the $52 it takes to tissue-type each donor sample out of a kitty the Boston alumni association gives him from its charity golf tournament. And yes, every single one of his players, every year, has given a sample.

"It is kind of mandatory," he admitted. But then he said it's never taken any real arm twisting.

Talley, 64, just stands in front of his team and asks who's known someone with cancer. He gets 90 raised hands. He asks who's known someone who's died of cancer. He usually gets more than 60 arms up. He asks who's had that someone be a family member. He's still waiting for a day when he'll see less than half those hands up.

Talley tells all those football players how bone marrow transplants could've given a lot of those people they knew a chance. How the blood stem cells in marrow contain the white cells and red cells and platelets to fight infection and how bone marrow transplants could, in the future, give a bunch of other cancer patients a chance.

"And then I look at the African-American kids and say, 'If it's your mother, father, brother or sister who gets cancer, well, it's probably not going to happen for them,'" Talley said, playing the heavy without qualms.

Because tissue types are inherited, ethnicity matters. And right now, in America, there's less than half a million African-Americans in the volunteer registry. There's even fewer Asian-Americans. The National Bone Marrow Program says 6,000 people are searching the registry every day, that a bone marrow transplant could help 35,000 people a year, and that there are barely six million Americans who've taken the two minutes to get their cheeks swabbed. And that really is how long it takes.

"It's so quick and easy," said Holland, 20, who along with his teammates actually does the collecting under the supervision of an NBMP administrator. Back when Talley started the program, collecting a sample meant drawing a vial of blood. Now, Holland said, "You put a cotton swab in your mouth, we put the swab in a case and then we put it in a box. The hardest part is getting people to come."

For 17 years, though, the Wildcats have. They each sign up about 10 of their classmates, usually half show, and every year, the Wildcats have gotten somewhere between 250-300 donors.

"It was sort of a quiet venture," Talley said. And it stayed that way because look, let's be honest, Talley's a football coach. It's not like he has oodles of free time.

"It always has been the time thing," he agreed, with a sigh.

So Talley never found out if any of the donors he signed up matched. He always hoped a few did, and he told himself to be happy that the little bit he did on his campus was something. Then last fall, early in the season, he was told about a potential match for a 53-year old cancer patient. It was his kicker, Joe Marcoux.

"Joe didn't hesitate for a minute," Talley said. "He just said, 'Let's go.'"

Doctors take marrow in two ways, either by removing the liquid from the pelvic bone, which requires a hospital stay, or through a non-surgical method, where a donor's blood is removed from one arm and passed through a machine that separates the cells for transplantation. The remaining blood is put back in the donor's other arm. Doctors decided that was the best method for Marcoux.

Talley announced that Marcoux would never have to make another field goal to be the best kicker in Nova history, and the ensuing stories meant the coach's "pet project" suddenly exploded.

First the Temple Hospital Transplant Unit called. Then the Transplant Assistance Fund. They wanted Talley to try to sign up 1,000 people, and all the coach could think was, We don't get 1,000 people to our spring game.

So he called his colleagues in Philadelphia, Penn coach Al Bagnoli and Temple coach Al Golden. He called the head coaches at UMass and Maine, New Hampshire and Northeastern, and every one said they'd do what Villanova's done this spring. They'll have their players sign up volunteers and they'll hold donor drives. One thousand suddenly looks easy. Especially since Harvard's coach just called this week.

"He said he heard about it and wanted to do something there too. We all do Toys for Tots and Light the Night and all those things," Talley said. "But this is something that has a direct impact."

So direct that Talley may be without his star middle linebacker for a few weeks. Holland had 12 vials of blood drawn this week, which will be tested against 14 other compatible matches to see which blood is the most compatible. If it's Holland, he'll undergo the same process Marcoux did and wait six weeks for his marrow to be replaced. Villanova's 1-1, they're only five years removed from a trip to the national semifinals, and Holland's really hoping, he said, "that I'm the match."

So is Talley. Even if it does mean a hole in the middle of his defense.

"What are we going to say? 'Sorry, we have a football game to win?'" the 28-year coaching veteran asked, scoffing at the mere suggestion. "We're talking about saving a life. That's greater than any win we could have on our schedule."

And definitely worth missing any number of games for. Just ask Michael Holland.