GVSU football players step up to be bone marrow donors

It’s a way to “give back,” says one of the dozens of teammates who joined the national registry.

Grand Valley State University football players volunteered to tackle a different kind of opponent Tuesday when they signed up as bone marrow donors.

Swabbing the insides of their cheeks, dozens of teammates put their DNA into the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match registry.

The decision was an easy one, said Bryce Young-Walls, a freshman running back from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

It’s about “giving back,” he said. He was impressed to learn that in only four to six hours, he could be a stem cell or bone marrow donor and save the life of someone who has leukemia, cancer or other blood diseases.

“If I were in that position where someone I loved, or even myself, needed a donor, I know I would love it if someone was willing to give,” he said.

Spectrum Health nurse Darcie Beebe, RN, organized the bone marrow registry drive for the Lakers. As transplant coordinator for Spectrum Health’s Adult Bone & Marrow Transplant Unit, it’s her job to find unrelated donors for patients who need a stem cell transplant.

Her son Colin is a sophomore on the GVSU team. She realized the young men on the team represented an ideal donor pool, so she asked the team’s coaches if she could host an event.

Head Coach Matt Mitchell readily agreed.

“As a head coach, it’s important for me to provide opportunities for the guys to give back and to serve the community,” he said.

Although they are involved in many activities, joining the registry offers a unique possibility of saving someone’s life.

About 75 of the 90 players showed up to hear a presentation by Caitlin Regan, a marrow recruitment specialist for Michigan Blood.

She stressed the importance of not feeling pressured to sign up. Those who volunteer are asked to be certain of their commitment.

They could be matched with a patient in need of a transplant anywhere in the world.

Tom Cleary, a play-by-play announcer for GVSU football, encouraged the players to consider a donation. His 14-year-old daughter, Tara, received a bone marrow transplant seven years ago. Her donor was her sister, Brenna.

It was a life-saving treatment for Tara, and a life-changing event for the family.

“Every day is Christmas when you have a kid who has lived through a disease like Fanconi anemia, like she has, or leukemia,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing.”

He compared a marrow donation to carrying a football the last six yards for a touchdown.

“You’re going to make a huge difference in everybody’s life. And you’re going to get all the glory,” he said. “It’s not that hard a thing to do.”

About 50 of the players stayed to sign up for the registry. Many had already signed up at a recent Relay for Life event held by the American Cancer Society, Mitchell said.

The coach said he was not surprised to see such strong interest among the players.

“We’ve got good people in our locker room,” he said. “They are pretty unselfish.”

JJ McGrath, a junior kicker from Holt, Michigan, said he’s inspired by his uncle, who is a bone marrow donor.

“I hope I get the opportunity to do it,” he said.

Learn more about Spectrum Health’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Program.

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