Cortland (WSYR-TV) -- Thousands of fans will be cheering on the SUNY Cortland football team Saturday, but one of the players will have a very special little girl watching from the stands. Two-year-old Clara Boyle and her family are traveling all the way from California to meet their hero.
John Stephens has the normal jitters any athlete gets when preparing for a game, but the junior linebacker is excited about Saturday’s game for another reason. His decision to join other teammates in becoming a bone marrow donor two years ago will come full circle.
About six months after signing up to become a donor on a recruiting trip to SUNY Cortland, Stephens found out he was a perfect match for a newborn who had a form of leukemia. While baby Clara lay in a California hospital, Stephens had the decision of his life to make.
“October 8 was the day I got the call actually,” Stephens said. “I was thinking, ‘yeah, I should do this,’ but I wasn’t sure what the whole process would be after that.”
January 11, Stephens went in for surgery, which lasted about one hour. Recovery time lasted a couple of days.
“Me and my family are always waiting, always asking what the updates are, waiting to find out who these people are,” Stephens said.
Months later he would learn his recipient had improved, but contract restrictions kept him from knowing anything about the little girl or her family – possibly forever - unless they wanted to contact him. They did a year later and have never stopped.
“She texts me, texts my parents, we Skype, so I see them, they see me, I see Clara. Clara knows my face, my name and she knows my parents names, which is pretty cool; she’s only two,” Stephens continued.
Coach Dan MacNeill brought the “Get in the Game, Save a Life” national marrow donor program to Cortland over a decade ago for this very reason.
“This is pretty monumental when you save a life,” Coach MacNeill said. "We have young men that will actually be able to see the face of victory, a young lady that will visit us and say, ‘yep, that's why we do what we do.’"
They both certainly would like to see the scoreboard in their favor tomorrow, but both men know regardless of what it reads up there, they already have a win to their credit.
"It’s going to be emotional, with my parents and them, but it’s also going to be very cool to finally hold Clara's hand, hold Clara," Stephens said.
Clara has been given a clean bill of health. During Saturday’s game, Clara will sport a custom-made Cortland Jersey with Stephens’ name and No. 34 on it.