Williams seeks donor to help wife battle cancer
Real Salt Lake forward Andy Williams' team bio details his soccer career. His 11 seasons in MLS. His years with the Jamaican national team. His time at the University of Rhode Island.
Now, after years of Marcia Williams pulling for her husband to win on the pitch, Andy Williams is determined to do all he can to help her come up with the kind of victory that dwarfs any soccer outcome.
On July 3, 2008, Marcia was diagnosed with leukemia. After months of feeling tired and with tests showing no abnormalities, she asked her doctor to test her for cancer. Initially, her doctor thought she was overreacting. She was young and had no risk factors, but Marcia had taken a class on nursing years before, and it had stuck with her. She pushed for the test.
The oncologist assured her it would be nothing as well. And then her test results came back. Marcia was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia type 6, a variation that impacts about 5 percent of those with the disease and has a worse than average prognosis.
It felt like the world stopped. The couple sat down with their daughters and explained difficult times lay ahead, but Marcia made it very clear that she was going to do everything she could to beat the disease.
"Originally when we found out, we didn't really tell anyone," Andy said. "But word got around, and people started coming and offering support."
One of those people was Deb Harper, who knew the Williams family as a fan and longtime volunteer with Real Salt Lake.
"When Marcia was diagnosed, we just knew that they were going to need a lot of help," Harper recalled.
Harper and a few friends decided to do whatever they could to provide that assistance, and Soccer Unites was born. Soccer Unites was created to help find a bone marrow donor for Marcia, but the organization is not about just one woman. The group partnered with DKMS, the world's largest bone marrow donor center. DKMS registers potential donors and places their information in a database where they can be matched with patients.
Soccer Unites has organized a number of drives to register people as bone marrow donors, and it's a relatively simple procedure.
"For me, I had no clue what testing would entail, and I was pretty sure it would be some crazy procedure," Andy said. "But it's a just a simple procedure where you get your cheek swabbed and you go into a database that checks to see if you match anyone else. If it does, then they give you a call if you want to donate your bone marrow."
Both the testing and the donation process have come a long way in recent years. In the past, procedures involved drilling into the bone. Now, the most common form of donation is similar to donating blood platelets, where blood is taken from one arm, run through a machine and then returned to the body in the other arm.
"With these drives, just because we might not find a match from Marcia doesn't mean we won't find a match for somebody else, including a lot of children that have leukemia," Harper said. "Blood type doesn't matter. Nationality doesn't matter. Ethnicity doesn't matter. It's just if you're a match."
However, minority groups may be more likely to share traits that make them a match for one another, and minorities are severely underrepresented in the donor registry. Williams said his wife's doctor put the number of minority donors in the registry at 12 percent, and other national figures show extremely low numbers as well. This disparity is something the Williams family is trying to bring attention to as Marcia continues her own personal fight with cancer.
"We'd like to find a match for ourselves," Andy said. "But God put this on her to maybe open other people's eyes."
Bringing attention to the cause is not something the family set out to do, but the Williamses are using the platform they have -- and the results have been overwhelming.
When Harper first spoke with DKMS, she was told the average turnout for a bone marrow drive was 25 people. Previous Soccer Unites drives have brought in almost 200 each. And the organization hopes to attract even more potential donors to its upcoming drives, something it is confident it can do, especially with the help of Real Salt Lake.
On Sunday, Soccer Unites held a drive that was publicized with Real Salt Lake's help and registered 210 donors. Another is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 29 from 3 to 7 p.m. and will take place at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium. Three other drives -- Feb. 20 in Tampa and Feb. 21-22 in Fort Lauderdale -- are planned to coincide with the team's preseason training in Florida.
"With this whole [bone marrow drive] effort, it really takes precedence over everything else," Real Salt Lake president Bill Manning said. "The guys aren't worried about Andy and how he plays on the field, they're worried about his wife.
"We realize there are things that are more important than soccer," Manning said. "If someone is in need or can be helped by others, and if a public organization, like we are -- or sports teams in general -- can come together to help a cause, I think that's good. This is about more than wins and losses on the field."
The outreach has come not just from Real Salt Lake but from teams throughout MLS, from Chivas USA to FC Dallas to Red Bull New York. In fact, RSL rival Colorado was the first club to get involved, Andy Williams noted.
"It's been amazing how it's come together," Harper said. "You see these guys on the field battling, but there's such a friendship and bond off the field."
The support has aided the Williamses during this trying time.
"Some days are better than others," Andy said. "We go into the hospital once a week to see if she has any infections or how her blood count is doing. It's been steadily declining. It's at the point where chemo is around the corner. It's been tough, but we have great family and neighbors. The team has been awesome. There's nothing more we can ask for, except to find a match."
The ideal window in which to do that is closing. If a match for Marcia is found, doctors would like to perform the transplant after her first round of chemotherapy, meaning the next six to eight weeks are crucial. As with every other part of this ordeal, such a deadline can seem overwhelming, but the family works to focus on the present.
"Since we've had all this stuff, it's one day at a time," Andy said. "Some days we almost forget about it, and other days it comes up and it can be kind of gloomy and everyone is in a bad mood. ... But we've learned don't take anything for granted. You never know what life will give, so you enjoy the moment. You look forward and look for the best. We certainly look forward. Some days, it feels like a dream, that you'll wake up and it was just a dream."
Instead, the family hopes a real-life dream is soon realized -- that a donor can be found for Marcia.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.