Just a few hours before Villanova and North Carolina gave us one of the best endings to any season ever, Samantha Smith was at the dais, accepting the unprecedented: an award on behalf of the United States Basketball Writers Association for both her and her late husband, Butler’s Andrew Smith.
Andrew has already become something of a local legend in Indianapolis, and Sam continues to carry his spirit and honor his life with tremendous grace, dignity and probity. Andrew died, 25 years young, in Sam’s arms in January after a brave bout with leukemia.
Never before had the USBWA honored a pair for its Most Courageous Award, nor had it done this for someone no longer directly connected to college basketball. But that’s the power of Andrew Smith and the strength of his 24-year-old widow.
As Sam gave her acceptance speech, across the room, people began to cry as she explained her husband’s faith and will, her own struggles, and the incredible force that built up around them in their community, which was based with Butler. A crowd as cynical as they come — sportswriters being most of the lot — was moved to tears and captivation by Sam’s swift and powerful speech. Also in the crowd were Andrew’s big brother, Stephen, and Andrew’s best friend of nearly 20 years, Blake Leyden.
Beyond the thank-yous and anecdotes, the most important and poignant part of Sam’s speech related to something that means so much to her now and meant a lot to Andrew in his final months: simple, free donations. Donations of DNA. Cheek swabs. Painless, gracious actions that can eventually save lives.
After Andrew had beaten cancer the first time — and overcome a cardiac arrest episode that left him technically dead for more than 22 minutes — cancer returned in the spring of 2015, and he needed a bone marrow transplant to have a chance at extending his life. Andrew was lucky enough to receive a match for a transplant without much delay. The good news actually gave him concern — concern for others.
“What really hit home for Andrew with Be the Match was, with him, we got a phone call saying he had gotten a match,” Sam said. “It happened shortly after he was diagnosed. It was not typical. Andrew was extremely fortunate, but it was because he was a young, white male. As we were sitting with one of our doctors at one point, the doctor said, ‘If roles were reversed, if this was Sam who needed this, I can almost guarantee you she wouldn’t be getting a match.’ Because I have a more diverse background, and when he heard that, he kind of lost it. ‘That’s not an acceptable thing, that people are getting saved because they’re not of European descent. It’s not OK that people are passing away when they don’t have to.'”
Andrew’s thinking: Why couldn’t more people sign up for this? Like any cause, it needs awareness. It needs a constant public push. And it needs a powerful story to keep momentum. The Smiths have that and more. So now Sam and so many at Butler are trying to keep the momentum. Cheek-swab-sample donations to save lives. That’s how Project44, which was conceived after Andrew’s death, can become something tied to his life — forever. The idea was hatched by Michael Kaltenmark and Krissi Edgington, both of whom work at Butler. Kaltenmark is the caretaker and trainer of Butler’s mascot, Blue III, who has been named a national ambassador for Be The Match. Edgington works in marketing at the school, and Kaltenmark said much the “heavy lifting” with Project44 was on her end.
“In essence, we were brainstorming additional ideas to honor Andrew and perpetuate his memory/legacy in the wake of his passing,” Kaltenmark said.
Why “Project44” as a name? Smith wore No. 44, a number the school should absolutely consider retiring at some point down the road.
“The ‘Be the Match’ folks did the math really quick and determined that to save 44 lives through the registry, we would need to have 18,920 new registrants,” Kaltenmark said. “It’s a daunting number, but Andrew never backed down from a challenge, so we didn’t balk either. Ever since, we’ve just been trying to find ways to make 18,920 happen.”
The registration number is currently only in the hundreds. It can be in the thousands in no time, and wouldn’t it be incredible to see the number hit that 18,920 mark within a year of Andrew’s passing?
Those who register have a 1-in-430 chance to be selected to donate blood, and possibly marrow (of which most have plenty to spare) thereafter, to help the life of someone who literally needs it to remain alive.
Like what happened to Chase Stigall. Recognize the name? Stigall played at Butler. Graduated with Smith. It was Andrew who introduced Chase to his now-wife. Stigall attended Andrew’s funeral, and as part of a celebration of Smith’s life, there was a sign-up sheet, with swab kits and everything, at the service. Stigall donated.
A 1-in-430 chance. And Stigall got the call.
He got the call this week — on Monday.
He was a potential match. Someone in need could use his donations. Who?
An infant boy.
Think about that life that’s hanging in the balance right now. Stigall donated 10 vials of blood on Tuesday at the Indiana Blood Donation Center. There’s a boy somewhere in this country — Stigall does not know who the child is nor where he is located — that might wind up needing Stigall’s blood and bone marrow to live.
Stigall will find out in the coming weeks if his blood is a 10-out-of-10 match to save this boy’s life.
“With Andrew’s legacy, and how he represented himself and represented Butler, he was a guy that always gave back,” Stigall said. “With me just being a small part of it, it’s something I’m honored to do and willing to do. Going through this process, if i can help save somebody and help raise awareness, that’s what Andrew would would want.”
Sam still has hard days. Most of them are, really. She’s moved back into the house — their house — the one they bought together last year. She doesn’t always want to feel like she has to speak, has to advocate for these things. She deserves to grieve, of course. But her courage and steadfastness is done for Andrew and in the spirit of what he always did.
“Imagine sitting around waiting, you’re getting closer to death, and your chances of finding a match are getting slimmer and slimmer,” she said. “If you’re at the point of getting a transplant, if you’re on the list or need a donor, you’re in really bad shape. Your life is already being threatened, and there’s a glimmer of hope, so our heart breaks for the families who have to go through this and have to be on the other side of that phone call, who don’t get that donor match.”
Chase Stigall was on the other side of that call. And so was Emerson Kampen, who tragically lost his son earlier this season, but also donated cheek swabs and came up as a match. There has been too much darkness around Butler’s program, but with this, the brightness, optimism and chance for change can linger far longer than the sadness.
To see if your blood or marrow could possibly could be a match and to be added to the Be The Match Registry, click here
You’ll be mailed a free cheek-swab kit. You take four swabs in your mouth, put the swabs back in the kit and mail it back to Be the Match — for free — and from that point on you’re on the registry for 10 years.
If you get called, you go in for a blood sample to confirm DNA strands for matching.
For more information text “ANDREW” to 38470.