Marrow Donor Testing Drive a Huge Success; Estimates Put Record-Breaking Participation at More than 700

April 23, 2009

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - The marrow donor testing drive led by the Yale football and women's ice hockey teams Thursday afternoon at Commons attracted more than 700 participants according to initial estimates, establishing what is believed to be a record for an event of its kind. The drive was part of the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign that NCAA football teams throughout the country are participating in. The Yale women's ice hockey team joined the Yale football team in volunteering at this drive in honor of their teammate, junior forward Mandi Schwartz (Wilcox, Sask.), who is currently battling leukemia and in need of a donor.

The "Get in the Game. Save a Life." program started in 1992 at Villanova under the guidance of head football coach Andy Talley. To date the program has resulted in more than 3,500 potential donors being tested, including Villanova football player Joe Marcoux, who wound up being a match for a patient in need in 2007. Talley has partnered with the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) to take his efforts to the national level. On any given day, more than 6,000 men, women and children are searching the NMDP Registry for a life-saving donor. These patients have leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases that can be treated by a bone marrow or cord blood transplant. For many of these patients, a transplant may be the best and only hope of a cure.

Larry Ciotti, an 18-year assistant coach at Yale, is a friend of Talley's and brought the idea of participating in the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." program to Tom Williams, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. Williams embraced the idea, and the Bulldogs quickly picked up on the spirit behind it. The event also served as a key bonding experience for the team early in the tenure of Williams, who was announced as Yale's head coach in January. He and his entire staff of assistant coaches all participated in the drive and served as volunteers along with the Bulldog student-athletes.

"Coach Williams told the team: whatever we do, we're going to do it as a team, and we're going to do the best we can," said Ciotti. "This sets the tone for the 2009 Yale football team. We want to be the best at everything we do, and it starts with this bone marrow testing drive. Coach Williams urged everybody to participate. This did a lot for team bonding. It's events like this that make a team -- not just what they do on the football field."

The first participants began arriving well before the scheduled start time of 11:00 a.m., and the area in front of Commons on Beinecke Plaza was soon bustling with activity. Handsome Dan, Yale's live bulldog mascot, showed up to help attract interest, and members of the football team wearing their jerseys directed participants inside Commons to the donation area. There, volunteers from the football team, women's ice hockey team, and athletic department assisted at a variety of stations, helping participants fill out paperwork and preparing the testing kits, which consisted of four cheek swabs.

As the lunchtime crowd arrived so did Boola, Yale's costumed mascot. Anchorwoman Ann Nyberg from NewsChannel 8 also came by, and members of the football team and women's hockey team continued showing up in shifts to staff all the volunteer stations. The large turnout of participants soon spilled out into Beinecke Plaza, where a tent donated by Abbey Tent was set up with food donated by Jordan Catering, Leoni's Italian Foods and the Yale Dining Services. On sale were No. 17 Yale Hockey t-shirts, which the women's ice hockey team is selling to benefit Schwartz' medical treatment.

The overwhelming turnout kept the drive going nearly an hour after its scheduled end time. As members of the football team headed out to their afternoon practice (Yale plays the annual Blue-White Spring Scrimmage this Saturday at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field at 2:00 p.m.), the women's ice hockey player volunteers were facing the end of a long day -- they had been to their 24th and final 8:00 a.m. offseason conditioning and weight lifting session earlier. But then Betty Kelly of the National Marrow Donor Program, who helped coordinate the event, informed Ciotti and the last remaining volunteers that the estimated total participation was 685. That inspired a group of women's ice hockey players to make one last trip through Commons, rounding up fellow student-athletes, dining hall workers and other passersby to help put the final estimated total well past 700. Temple listed its total of 630 in 2008 as the national record by a collegiate team, and most other universities participating in the program topped out in the 400 range.

The record-breaking end result was a tribute to the way the drive attracted support from all areas of the Yale campus and beyond. In addition to being tested themselves, members of the football and women's ice hockey teams were each encouraged to sign up as many people in advance as possible. A large number of walk-ups added to the impressive total.

"It's a great feeling," said Ciotti. "The outpouring of support has been tremendous, starting with Coach Williams and continuing on with all of the volunteers from our football team and women's ice hockey team. We also received a great turnout from the Yale community and the local community -- a lot of people that weren't students. We pulled a lot of different groups together. To sum it up, it was overwhelming."

As the main Yale contact for the event, Ciotti received dozens of e-mails from those looking to help or just looking to thank him and the Yale athletic department.

"One e-mail came from a woman thanking us for doing this because both her son and her daughter had leukemia," Ciotti said. "They both got marrow transplants, and both are fine today."

That is the ultimate goal for Schwartz. The women's ice hockey team had initially planned on doing a marrow donor testing drive in her honor earlier this year, but when the team found out about the football team's plans to do one as well it was clear that the two teams working together could create a huge event. Schwartz suddenly had 100 new teammates helping her cause.

"We were very excited that we would have the combined efforts of the football team," said junior forward Caroline Murphy (Woodstock, Conn.), the 2009-10 Yale women's ice hockey captain. "They have a huge presence on campus. We have to thank Larry Ciotti. He provided a lot of motivation and made sure everyone signed up and participated. He played a huge role in organizing this."

As a result, Thursday saw football and women's ice hockey players working together and side-by-side as volunteers, attempting to keep up with the larger-than-expected turnout as they assembled donor testing packets and helped sign in potential donors. Many other Yale athletics teams were represented in the turnout as well. Since Schwartz also works in Director of Athletics Tom Beckett's office, she is a well-known and well-liked figure throughout Ray Tompkins House, and that brought many athletic department administrators and coaches out to the drive. Volunteers and donors alike all kept their spirits high as the crowd inside Commons swelled.

"Overall the atmosphere was great," Murphy said. "Everyone was very happy just knowing that they were doing something very altruistic that could benefit a lot of people. Even when there was a line and people had to wait, they were just grateful to have the opportunity to donate."

Murphy had talked to Schwartz, who is back home in Saskatchewan receiving her fifth and final round of chemotherapy as she awaits a donor, shortly before the event.

"Mandi would say this is great," Murphy said. "She's ecstatic that it's her last round of chemotherapy, she can't wait to enjoy the summer, and she's getting ready to come back in the fall."

Murphy planned to call Schwartz to deliver the good news about the marrow donor drive participation.

"I'm going to tell her we had 700 people," Murphy said. "I'm sure that will make her very happy and flattered."

Report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity