Ryan Burke spent most of New Year’s Eve on the couch feeling sore and fatigued.
But the Montana Griz wide receiver wants to make one thing perfectly clear about his heroic and exceptionally thoughtful gesture on Monday: You don’t have to be a college football player to help save a life by donating bone marrow.
“I’d rather do that than take a shot from Brock or Jordan,” joked the gregarious redshirt freshman from Billings, referring to Griz linebackers Brock Coyle and Jordan Tripp.
“I just hope this is an informational thing so other people sign up. It’s really kind of a peaceful deal. I’ve never sat still for five and a half hours in my life, but knowing you’re doing it for someone’s life is easier to do.”
Burke first became aware of the importance of donating while watching the Griz play in the 2009 FCS national championship game against Villanova in Chattanooga, Tenn. That’s when he was first introduced to Wildcats running back Matt Szczur, who had a big night in a victory over his beloved Maroon and Silver.
“I have watched his story on ESPN about being a donor and thought it would be a great thing to do,” Burke said. “I’ve never even met him, but after that national championship game I followed him through his pro baseball career and know we have it in common. He’s the reason I signed up.”
Give an assist to the UM Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and Griz football coach Mick Delaney. The committee brainstormed an idea to start a local bone marrow registry drive last winter. Then after contacting Villanova for pertinent information, Delaney got involved. The entire Griz football team signed up to donate along with about 100 others.
“After I signed up all people said was I’ve been on the registry for 20 years and never even got an email,” Burke said. “I heard Szczur say one time it’s one in 85,000 chance you’re a match.
“During that championship game they had talked about him being a match but at that point he hadn’t donated yet. Then during his baseball season that year he donated. His match was across the world.”
About midway through the 2013 football season Burke received an email indicating he was a possible match. He didn’t think much of it until he received a phone call.
“They asked me if I was interested and I said, ‘Absolutely. I didn’t sign up to say no,’” Burke said.
Burke endured several physical exams, including one during the week of Montana’s playoff game against Coastal Carolina. Then in the four days leading up to this week he had two shots of Neupogen in his arm each day. He says the drug boosted his stem cell count and helped healthy marrow cells to release into his bloodstream.
On Monday he donated in Denver.
“The process really isn’t that bad,” he said. “I think that’s why a lot of people are hesitant to sign up. Yeah it’s a little painful, but everybody expects that.
“(Monday) I was hooked up and the machine extracts blood and marrow cells. It makes you weak. And the Neupogen shots enlarge your spleen. But my mom asked me ‘Would you do it again with the side affects?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Burke doesn’t know anything about the cancer patient he is helping other than the individual is a male and resides in the United States. He says he is allowed to meet him after a year and he’d love the chance.
Even if he never does, he feels good about getting the word out about the importance of donating bone marrow.
“I’m not a guy who plays a ton on Saturdays,” he said, “but I hope just being on the team helps with getting people to see this and leads them to be part of it.”