Inspired by Mandi Schwartz, Yale Football and Women’s Ice Hockey Teams Combine Efforts to Find Potential Donors
NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The Yale football and women’s ice hockey teams were facing a major challenge as they headed into their second annual “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” marrow donor testing drive Thursday afternoon at Commons. The Bulldogs had tested a record 704 people at last year’s drive -- and since all of those people were now already in the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match Registry, the two teams would have to find hundreds upon hundreds of new registrants this year in order to meet their goal of saving lives and keeping their record intact. The teams came up with a game plan, starting work on the project weeks in advance. And they got a reminder of just how important their work was earlier this week, when women’s ice hockey forward Mandi Schwartz learned that she would have to return home to Saskatchewan to battle cancer again. Just hours after Schwartz left New Haven, the Bulldogs rallied together and shattered their own record by signing up 911 potential donors [note: this figure was adjusted to 921 after the official count].
“Some people will have their lives saved because of what Yale did today,” said Chris Mulcahy, the National Marrow Donor Program representative who worked with the teams to coordinate the drive.
Those who participated in the drive will have their tests -- which consisted of four cheek swabs -- entered into the registry within the next four to six weeks. They will remain there as options for a life-saving marrow donation until they reach the age of 61.
Every year, thousands of people of all ages, like Schwartz, are diagnosed with leukemia and other life-threatening diseases. For many of them, a bone marrow or cord blood transplant from a matching donor is the best hope for a cure. Seventy percent of people do not have a donor in their family and depend on the Be The Match Registry to find a match to save their life.
Mulcahy noted that Yale’s drive saw as many new registrants in one day as he typically sees in three months, and was twice as big as any other drive he had been a part of. He travels throughout New England to roughly 150 drives per year.
Mulcahy had a simple explanation for the reason behind Yale’s success.
“The players,” Mulcahy said. “There is no doubt about it. To get 200 more people in addition to what they did last year is so impressive because every one of those people from last year was already in the registry. The players couldn’t draw from those same friends, roommates or teammates. They had to make the effort to find new people. That really speaks to what they accomplished, basically starting from scratch. The players did a wonderful job educating the Yale community on the need for donors.”
Much of the work began a month earlier, when Larry Ciotti -- an 18-year assistant coach with the Yale football team -- began leading a committee to plan this year’s drive. Ciotti first brought the idea for the drive to Yale last year after hearing about it from his friend Andy Talley, the head coach at Villanova. Talley started the “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” program with his team in 1992 and it has now grown to include 35 college football teams throughout the country. At Yale, Schwartz’ condition inspired the women’s hockey team to participate as well. The program has resulted in more than 11,500 potential donors being tested, including many who have been matches to make life-saving donations.
The job Yale did last year opened some eyes, and in a promotional video for “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” this year Talley made a point of recognizing Yale’s record – while also noting that he wanted his team to beat that record. The Wildcats held their drive last week and made a run at the Bulldogs’ mark but finished just short, with 701 people. Other top schools this year included Duquesne (428), Penn (410) and Temple (405, including a match for their football manager with leukemia). With several other schools still scheduled to hold drives, the Bulldogs wanted to make sure the record stayed in New Haven.
“It’s very difficult just to get even 500 people,” Ciotti said. “To finish with more than 900 is phenomenal -- well beyond my expectations. Everybody involved did a great job. The kids were great. They believe in the fact that we can save a life, and they put a lot of passion and energy into it.”
The importance of the drive was hammered home throughout the Yale campus in a multitude of ways, including a front-page story in the Yale Daily News Thursday that detailed both Schwartz’ need for a donor and one of the success stories from last year’s drive – Jim Owen, a Yale employee who got tested and eventually made a life-saving donation.
Owen was inspired to come to the drive last year when he read about Schwartz, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December of 2008 at the age of 20. After months of chemotherapy back home, Schwartz was in remission by last spring. She returned to Yale in January and was taking classes and practicing with the hockey team with the goal of returning to the ice in the fall of 2010. Those plans were put on hold earlier this week when test results indicated that she would need to go through chemotherapy again. The ultimate goal is to get her back in remission and give her a transplant, but a perfect “10 out of 10” match has not been found yet.
On Thursday Schwartz’ No. 17 jersey hung on the hospitality tent outside Commons, and the members of the women’s ice hockey team at the drive all wore the Yale Hockey “No. 17” t-shirts that were initially made as part of a fundraiser for Schwartz last season. Schwartz was an active member of the drive committee, helping plan the event for weeks, and her presence was still felt throughout the day.
“My thoughts were all about Mandi today,” Ciotti said.
For Schwartz’ teammates, the drive represented a chance to focus their energy less than 48 hours after receiving the news that Schwartz would have to head home for chemotherapy. The huge turnout was a much-needed piece of positive news.
“For our team in particular, it is so exciting to have this many people register,” said senior forward Berit Johnson. “With Mandi’s re-diagnosis, which was such a shock, this was a way for us to do something right away to support her.”
The day started off emotionally for the team, as the Bulldogs gathered for breakfast with Schwartz and her mother before saying goodbye.
“We walked her to the car, then had a team hug to show our support for her,” Johnson said. “We know she’s going to make it through this, and we’re going to see her again soon.”
While many of the people who showed up on Thursday had already heard about the drive through stories like Schwartz’, the Bulldogs also worked hard to educate everyone who passed by about how important taking 15 minutes to get their cheeks swabbed could be. Working side-by-side with their coaches on Beinecke Plaza just outside Commons, the Yale football players’ competitive instincts came in handy as they tried to recruit potential donors.
“I was challenged,” said senior linebacker Tim “Bear” Handlon. “Presto [assistant coach Mike Preston] called me out to see if I could get one.”
Handlon met the challenge -- and he even used some of his football footwork as he convinced someone walking away from the drive to turn around and potentially help save a life.
“She went into speed-walking mode, so I turned around and went into a backpedal,” Handlon said. “That was what got her. She made it all the way to Wall Street before I convinced her to turn around. The guys were really cheering when I came back with her. Maybe she’ll be a match.”
Those same competitive instincts were on display inside Commons as well, where players, coaches and athletic department administrators staffed a half-dozen stations to help potential donors through the various steps in the process. While the football and women’s ice hockey teams were the leaders, the rest of Yale’s athletic teams were all well-represented, either as volunteers or as potential donors. The official count was kept all day long at Station 5, where players gradually collected the envelopes with swabs in them and stuffed them into boxes for delivery to the National Marrow Donor Program. After a slow start to the drive, which began at 11 a.m., the Bulldogs realized they were nearing their record of 704 at around 2:30 p.m. Counting each envelope as it got handed in around that time, two women’s hockey players vied for the chance to be the one to put away the record-breaker. In a photo finish, junior forward Bray Ketchum got in the record-tying 704th, and sophomore forward Lauren Davis got credit for the record-breaking 705th.
With the record in hand, the Bulldogs still had plenty of work to do. There were ebbs and flows in the traffic as students came and went to class early in the day. But with so many players from both teams spreading out across campus to get the word out, more and more people began showing up as the day wore on. The line just to get into Commons eventually grew to nearly 100 people, stretching out far into Beinecke Plaza.
“The drive was a lot more widely publicized this year,” Johnson said. “There were so many more e-mails, and so much more of an effort to make people aware of what was involved. We also had more people out there trying to get people to Commons. That was something that really helped.”
The local media was well-represented, with camera crews from New Channel 8 and NBC Connecticut along with coverage by the New Haven Register. News Channel 8’s Anne Nyberg also shot some of her own video footage for her “Annie Mame” blog.
Outside Commons, the Bulldogs did everything they could to thank those who were waiting. Assistant football coach Doug Semones went through the line distributing the pizza donated by Yorkside, and sandwiches from the dining hall at Calhoun College -- Schwartz’ residential college – were available as well. Ciotti added some cookies from Commons, and the Bulldogs also got appearances from both mascots -- Handsome Dan, the live bulldog, and Boola, the costumed bulldog -- to keep people entertained.
Meanwhile, inside Commons the Bulldogs also had to adjust to the late rush. There were approximately 100 people processed in just one 20-minute span shortly after 2 p.m. The football and women’s ice hockey teams had gotten together weeks earlier to pre-assemble hundreds of donor testing kits, but that supply eventually ran out. The Yale volleyball coaching staff held down the fort assembling additional kits with a handful of football and hockey players as long as they could. When the call for reinforcements went out, that group suddenly found itself with an extra half-dozen members of the football team ready to step in and learn on the fly about where to place the various identification stickers on the paperwork and swabs. Within a matter of minutes, the Bulldogs once again had enough kits ready to keep the line flowing as smoothly as possible.
Players on each team were asked to donate an hour of their time to help out on Thursday, but many went above and beyond. Junior fullback Shane Bannon spent most of his day at Station 4, working with senior defenseman Alyssa Clarke to make sure potential donors had their paperwork filled out properly before directing them over to the cheek-swabbing station. Bannon even got his father, who owns County Line Auto in nearby Middlebury, involved -- Robert Bannon ran public service announcements promoting the drive on all the local radio stations where he advertises.
“I think if we can give back, we should,” Shane Bannon said. “This was a pretty simple way to do that. Hopefully we’ll get a few matches.”
That is exactly the type of community-oriented thinking that Tom Williams, Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football, has preached to his team ever since arriving in New Haven in 2009. It is no coincidence that the team has risen to the occasion each time Williams issued a challenge to get as many people registered as possible these past two years.
“Coach Williams inspires us to compete in everything we do,” said Bannon. “If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it big.”
Send Mandi Schwartz
Yale women’s hockey head coach Hilary Witt and her assistants were also key participants on Thursday. Assistant coach Paul Nemetz-Carlson had been helping keep track of the total number of registrants, and as the drive wound down it looked as if Yale was going to fall just short of the 900 mark. But just as they did last year to get past 700, the Bulldogs spread out throughout the surrounding area to recruit one last group of donors from the few students and dining hall workers still around long after lunchtime. In the end, Nemetz-Carlson got the distinction of being the 900th registrant. Shortly after that, the Bulldogs ran out of registration forms and stopped the drive at around 4 p.m., an hour after it was initially scheduled to end.
In the end, the Bulldogs succeeded through teamwork and planning. With Schwartz as their inspiration, they tapped into a community spirit that extended well beyond the Yale campus. The ultimate goal is to find a match not just for Mandi, but for many others like her.
“What was inspiring was this wasn’t just a patient-focused drive, trying to find a match for one particular person,” Mulcahy said. “This was people getting together for a good cause.”
Report by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity