For one night during the NFL offseason, the Ravens’ purple and the Steelers’ black and gold were a perfect match at a charity event meant to connect strangers and fight cancer
BALTIMORE — The groans rose quickly, making the far corner of a hotel ballroom sound like the 500-level at M&T Bank Stadium following a Ravens’ turnover. John Harbaugh, the city’s beloved Super Bowl-winning coach, was mingling with a succession of well-wishers when Derek Shaffer, a 55-year-old Baltimorean by way of tiny Yatesboro, Pa., made his way to the front of the line clad in a yellow Steelers polo shirt. After a brief introduction he upped the ante and produced a most foreign object in this zip code: a Terrible Towel that he draped while posing for a photo with the coach. Onlookers recoiled, exasperated.
“It’s okay,” Harbaugh told them. “I told him he could.”
These are the scenes you expect at a cats-and-dogs social hour like the “A Night of Heroes” event hosted at the Baltimore Harbor Hotel last week. For some two hours Harbaugh, his Steelers counterpart Mike Tomlin, and former Ravens coach Brian Billick lingered within a 10-yard radius of each other, meeting-and-greeting a series of fans, most of whom wore suits or dresses—though many made sure to include some purple or yellow. Yet aside from some lighthearted needling, representatives and fans from both sides of this fierce NFL rivalry spent the evening in harmony. “I don’t think you’ll ever see this again,” Harbaugh said of the teams’ collaboration.
“We all know Nestor,” he added, “but we’re here for Jenn.”
That would be Baltimore sports radio personality Nestor Aparicio and his wife, Jenn, the hosts of and hearts behind the event. The night benefited There Goes My Hero, a Baltimore-based charity that helps feed leukemia patients during treatment and register possible bone marrow donors to the National Bone Marrow Registry. To the Aparicios, the cause is deeply personal. Two years ago, Jenn was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia; after beating it with the help of a bone marrow transplant, the cancer returned even more aggressively last fall.
“We’re telling the story of why we’re here,” Nestor said, “which is: my wife got f------ cancer, we freaked out, she almost died twice, and had her life saved.”
Two of the night’s most important and recurring terms—bone marrow and match—were largely unknown to Nestor before Jenn’s diagnosis. After the couple returned from an Australian vacation in February 2014, Jenn remained fatigued for weeks and experienced an unusual pain under her right arm. A series of tests determined she had acute bilineal leukemia, which would require a bone marrow transplant. Because a donor must have the right human leukocyte antigen tissue type, finding a matching donor can be difficult (even siblings have only a 20 percent match rate). But while Jenn’s sister wasn’t a match, a 21-year-old German man was. That June she received her transplant, beginning a long and difficult recovery.
By the spring of 2015, the Aparicios were working to spread the word about the importance of swabbing, the process in which potential donors’ inner cheeks are rubbed with a Q-tip to collect a DNA sample for the donor registry. During Jenn’s treatment, Nestor—who had been sharing his wife’s battle on social media and the WNST airwaves—connected with There Goes My Hero founder Erik Sauer, a leukemia survivor himself. Last May they hosted the first “A Night of Heroes” event, honoring Colts coach and leukemia survivor Chuck Pagano (who had spent an hour on the phone with Jenn after she was diagnosed), Ravens president and kidney donor Dick Cass, and Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese, whose son, Tyler Thomas, beat childhood leukemia in 2013. They also partook in a tour of 30 Major League Baseball ballparks in 30 days, hosting swabbing events at 18 of them.
Last August, Nestor was struck by an idea for “A Night of Heroes” sequel. While at the team’s headquarters in Owings Mills, Md., Ravens director of player engagement Harry Swayne told him that James Trapp, the special teams captain on Baltimore’s Super Bowl XXXV-winning team, had beaten leukemia himself in 2010. Shortly thereafter, the Aparicios saw a segment on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about former Ravens nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu retiring to donate a kidney to his brother, Chris, an ex-Steelers guard. Given his existing friendship with Tomlin, whom he had gotten to know at NFL owners meetings, Nestor saw a potential theme: Ravens and Steelers coming together, if only for a night.
Soon those plans and more were cast in doubt. Last September, Jenn’s cancer returned, worse than before. The same German donor came through again, this time providing blood for a lymphocyte infusion. But the chemotherapy ravaged Jenn’s body, as did the graft-versus-host disease, in which the body begins attacking donor cells after a transplant. Her diabetes complicated things further. She withered to just 95 pounds. “There were long periods of time where I was either sleeping or throwing up,” said Jenn, who will return to work as a network engineer for Verizon this week. “I couldn’t hold anything down.”
Shortly after the New Year, with Jenn responding well to prednisone treatments, Nestor met with Sauer. “I was like, I think she’s gonna live,” Nestor said. “Let’s do this event.” He reached out to Trapp, now the Bills’ chaplain and assistant director of player engagement, and got him on board. Billick, Nestor’s business partner at WNST, and Harbaugh signed on as well. (The Kemoeatus also agreed, though Nestor said they were unable to attend due to a death in the family.) And Tomlin, who hosted the Aparicios in Pittsburgh during last summer’s stadium tour, responded that he was “two feet in.”
The result was a lively gathering of some 600 attendees who paid up to $200 to enjoy food from local vendors (“NO STEELERS FANS!!” joked a handmade sign above Pat’s Pizzeria & Grill’s crab dip) and speeches from the night’s guests of honor in support of a common cause. “It shows you that, yes, sports are important, but at the end of the day it’s not your life?” said Tyler Guzman, a 19-year-old three-time leukemia survivor whose “Ty Strong” bracelets were staples among the Ravens’ championship team three years ago. “You’ve got people from totally opposite worlds in that respect coming together to create one great atmosphere.”
On stage during the evening’s main event, Maryland governor Larry Hogan, who beat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year, declared himself a “Ravens and Steelers fan” for the evening. Former Ravens president David Modell shared an emotional thank you to his wife, Michel, for her support during his ongoing battle with Stage 4 lung cancer. “I was told I had a year to live a year ago,” Modell said, “so I’m really happy to be here tonight.” Nestor shared a video slideshow of Jenn’s 27-month journey, from Australia through both rounds of treatment, while they clung to a mantra inspired by her blood type: B-positive.
Later, Billick and Trapp shared the stage, recounting Trapp’s transformation from a self-described bad apple (and childhood Steelers fan) to a beloved Ravens leader. Trapp also told the story of how after a lifetime of sibling spats, his sister Alicia saved his life as a bone marrow donor. “Adversity is a companion of champions, but it’s an enemy to the weak,” Trapp told the audience. “Cancer lost. It became a free agent. And I don’t miss him. Wouldn’t sign him again.” Tomlin took the stage to “Renegade” by Styx, an unofficial Steelers anthem, and shared the secret to his unlikely relationship with such an unapologetically pro-Baltimore sports personality. “We continually insult each other,” he said. When it was Harbaugh’s turn, he followed a standing ovation with playful jabs at Tomlin. “This guy’s got a great handshake,” he joked, in reference to a tense postgame exchange in 2012. “I suspect he’s a pretty good tackler too.”
The mood stayed jovial as Harbaugh and Tomlin were swabbed on stage for the donor registry, teasing one another about their “swab faces.” During a closing roundtable alongside Billick, Nestor shared the story of how after the Steelers beat the Ravens twice in the 2008 regular season, then again in the playoffs, Tomlin told him, “The only thing better than kicking your asses three times would be four.” (“I said it,” Tomlin confessed to the crowd, drawing laughs.) While discussing the significance of the teams’ rivalry, Harbaugh singled out Steelers chairman Dan Rooney for praise. “After the game, he comes in our locker room every time, win or lose, to shake my hand,” he said. “That’s class. That’s the kind of organization that the Steelers are.”
It was a feel-good night tucked safely into the month on the calendar most distant from on-field competition. As the program closed, Nestor invited his wife and her fellow survivors onto the stage for a group photo alongside the special guests while the PA system blared Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
Meanwhile, in a booth along one of the spacious ballroom’s sidewalls, the most important part of the night wound down. There, a quartet of volunteers packed up their supplies after swabbing attendees for the bone marrow registry. Eighty-six swabs had been collected, a substantial number considering how many of those in attendance had already registered or were disqualified based on age or medical history. The hope was that among them there would be at least one match, and with it the seed of at least one more story of survival somewhere in the world, like those that had brought the Ravens and the Steelers together on this night.
For more information about There Goes My Hero, check out their website. Those interested in being swabbed for the bone marrow registry can find out more through one of There Goes My Hero’s partners, Delete Blood Cancer.
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