NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - Anonymously and from afar, Central Connecticut football player Mike Mushaw saved a little girl's life about a year and a half ago, and finally this weekend he was able to hold her in his arms.
Her name is Eleanor, the recipient of bone marrow donated by Mushaw for a transplant in July 2018, a strawberry blond bundle of joy who spent much of her time at Arute Field Saturday pointing, laughing and repeating, "Mike! Mike!"
Eleanor, who turns 2 in January, was brought to New Britain for a celebration of life and giving that surrounded Central's game Saturday against St. Francis.
This didn't have to happen. That Eleanor is alive and cured of a rare immune deficiency that almost certainly would have claimed her life is enough to make this a story of success and inspiration.
Her family didn't have to meet Mushaw and make him a part of their lives. Mushaw didn't have to identify himself. Neither had to agree to accept post-transplant letters or phone calls from the other.
But what gives this particular case an additional jolt of joy is that no one involved ever wanted an impersonal experience. So they waited through the strict privacy protocol set forth by "Be The Match," the organization that paired them, and a year after the transplant they took steps toward making this weekend's introduction happen.
"Just the impact on Eleanor's life and our family's life is immeasurable, and we'll never be able to repay it," said Eleanor's father, Elan. "Mike had anonymously been part of our family's life in such a huge way. We just felt that we wanted him part of our life and Eleanor's life forever. ... There have been a lot of tears of sadness. Today there are tears of happiness."
The family chose to withhold its last name in agreeing to interviews and public appearances while at CCSU. Elan and wife Jess live in northern Virginia and are both federal workers.
Who needs last names, anyway?
That was Eleanor, dressed in a blue "Be The Match" jersey, as she looked at the field, pointing at the CCSU logo and at Mushaw himself.
"Just an amazing experience," said Mushaw, a junior linebacker from Scotia, N.Y. He was joined for a pregame ceremony at midfield by his parents, friends and many members of both families.
Hours later, wearing cleats bearing Eleanor's name, Mushaw burst through the line of scrimmage for a sack on the final play in overtime to seal Central's 38-31 victory.
It was perfect.
"I had to do it for them," Mushaw said. "Everything is for her. She's an inspiration to me. Everything she has fought back through is more than anything I could ever imagine, everything she's gone through. She's Wonder Woman, and she's amazing."
So is Mushaw, 21. The guy just gets it, the power of small actions to make a big difference, the power of living selflessly.
This all began with a simple cheek swab in September 2017, Mushaw's freshman year.
The Central football program had aligned itself with "Get In The Game, Save A Life." That campaign, which partners with "Be The Match," works with college football teams, encouraging players and others on campuses to enter a bone marrow donor registry.
"Right when I got the call - 'You're a perfect match and you can say yes or no' - right away I said yes," Mushaw said. "There was no doubt in my mind."
It was not without complications or sacrifice. Mushaw underwent the procedure in Boston on July 2, 2018, two needles inserted into his pelvic bone to extract marrow. He missed all summer football workouts and the first week and a half of camp in advance of last season. He was weakened by the process, prohibited for two weeks from lifting more than 10 pounds, walking stairs or even bending over.
"All worth it," he said.
And this weekend's introduction was worth the wait.
In July, at the post-transplant one-year mark, Mushaw signed paperwork that allowed the recipient to contact him beyond the anonymous letters they were allowed to share to that point. He was unaware that Eleanor's family was also moving to allow personal communication. Weeks later, Mushaw placed the first phone call, and friendships began, a family grew.
Mushaw, Eleanor, Elan and Jess have communicated frequently since, and they finally met Friday on campus. Afterward, they went out to dinner together. It was surreal. Here was this stranger who had silently brought magic to their lives, sitting there beside them.
Eleanor was diagnosed in April 2018 and about three weeks later found out there was someone out there, somewhere, with the ability and willingness to help. Donors and recipients are kept strictly confidential and could be from anywhere in the world.
"It's funny now to talk to Mike," Jess said. "Like ... he's the one."
"Mike!!" Eleanor yelled.
"For a long time he was just an anonymous person," Jess said. "All we knew is that he was 19, he had a tattoo and that he was a guy. We were ecstatic to find out our donor is from Connecticut. That's our backyard, practically."
"We talk about Mike a lot in our home. We watch his games, and we try to point to him on the TV and say 'Mr. Mike is playing.' But it wasn't until (Friday) that we were here that she pointed out at the field ...
And it really sunk in.
Eleanor is healthy, attending preschool. School is where the germs are, and that she is cleared to participate says a lot about the state of her new immune system.
"There's nothing like learning to appreciate life and not get distracted by the small things when something drastic impacts your family," Jess said. "While it was a really rough journey, I feel like we've come out of this stronger as a family."
The family celebrated on the field and into Saturday evening with Mushaw.
"It was overwhelming (to meet him)," Elan said. "We anticipated it being a unique experience, but you can't describe it. It's emotional, but it's all happy emotion. We're just trying to absorb the CCSU experience, spend time with Mike and just enjoy the entire weekend because it's all about celebration - and, obviously, kicking butt."
Mushaw kicked butt Saturday.
Eleanor continues to kick butt.
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