On a spring day in 2011, Cameron Lyle walked into Memorial Union at the University of New Hampshire and did what lots of other people on campus were doing. "Athletes were encouraged to get their mouths swabbed," says Lyle, who was then a sophomore on the track and field team. "They said it would take five minutes and the odds were ridiculous that anything would ever come of it."
This is an article from the May 13, 2013 issue
Lyle's swab was kept in the National Marrow Donor Program's database on the exceedingly slim chance that he might someday be a match for someone requiring a bone marrow transplant. "I totally forgot about it," he says.
The 6'2", 255-pound native of Plaistow, N.H., continued to compete in shot put, weight throw, hammer throw and discus for the Wildcats. "He was a typical walk-through-the-door kid who got maybe enough scholarship money to buy books," says his coach, Jim Boulanger. "But he is a fierce competitor."
Even so, he'd never won a gold during three years in Durham. "I have a stack of silver," says Lyle, who was hoping to change that as a senior this season when the telephone rang in March. It was a representative from the National Marrow Donor Program: Could he have some blood work done? Lyle complied, and when the results came back, he learned he was a perfect match for a 28-year-old man with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. That man, without a transplant, had maybe six months to live.
Saving a stranger would require an operation under general anesthesia, an overnight stay in a Boston hospital, physical pain, mental anxiety and a 1.34% chance of serious complications. Lyle didn't call his mom or his coach or his girlfriend. He just said, "I'll do it."
"He's not like any ordinary kid and never has been," says his mother, Christine Sciacca. "He had a lot of adversity in his life. His father and I divorced when he was young, and his dad moved to Florida when he was 13. I'm a recovering alcoholic, sober almost six years, and it wasn't easy for my kids. He could have chosen to be angry or resentful. Instead, he chose to turn it around."
Only after Lyle had agreed to the surgery did he realize his recovery would force him to miss a chunk of the spring season. His track career was over. He went to Boulanger's office, he says, "like a kid going to see the principal." The coach could see that he was nervous. "At 22 you're a man," says Boulanger, "but these guys are still kids, too. I looked at him and said, 'You can make 12 throws in Binghamton [at the America East conference championships] or you can give a man a life.'"
Actually, as Boulanger recognized, this was the ultimate team-first decision, if you see your team not as the Wildcats but the human race. "All our kids have bought into life before athletics," says Boulanger, in his 30th year at UNH. "Everything is so professional these days. But we're still good, old, basic extracurricular athletics here." In other words, his athletes know they're not curing cancer even when one of them sort of is.
In fact, Lyle would rather have not spoken to me or any other reporter. The happy trouble is, every time he talks, new people join the marrow registry at bethematch.org. "Some of [his teammates] were calling me Hollywood," he says of the short interviews he did on network morning shows. "But I didn't do this for media attention. Nobody knows who contacted our local paper, but it blew up from there. I've been saying to everyone I've talked to that I want to think about the guy who was dying of leukemia."
With him in mind, on April 24, Lyle spent an hour and 45 minutes on an operating table at Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors made five incisions in the muscle wall in his back and inserted a hollow needle into his pelvis to extract bone marrow. Sciacca sat in the waiting room, rubbing her rosary beads and reminding herself "that while one mother waits in fear, another mother waits in hope."
When it was over and Lyle was released from the hospital, the kid who can bench 325 pounds and squat 500—who can put a 16-pound shot 53 feet and throw a 35-pound weight 59½—was under doctor's orders not to lift even 20 pounds. His girlfriend, Camille Mirabito, had to tie his shoes and put his pants on for him. The pain, for a while, was "like a knife in the back." And he couldn't have been happier.
Yes, he'll miss the camaraderie—his best friend since grade school, C.J. Dupuis, is his teammate and road roommate—and the competition: You can't compete as a beer league shot-putter. "Actually, you can," says Lyle. "But I'm done. I've hung up my throwing shoes."
By law, Lyle and the man he helped must remain anonymous to each other for a year, after which—if both parties consent—they can meet. Lyle wrote him a letter last week to wish him well, then rode a bus six hours to Binghamton to watch the Wildcats compete in the America East championships.
His mom will watch him get his diploma on May 18. Lyle will graduate with a degree in business management, though the lessons of his final semester have gone far beyond that. "He taught me," she says. "And he's my hero."