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Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly tackles bone marrow registry project

Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles as a rookie in 2012, is tackling his first major charitable endeavor since the Panthers drafted him in the first round last year.

Kuechly will serve as a spokesman for Project Life, a national nonprofit organization to register college students for bone marrow donation that began as a grassroots movement at Davidson 22 years ago.

Kuechly, 22, will be featured on posters, radio spots and in an online campaign to bring attention to a donor database that has far fewer registrants than those for organ donation, despite a simple testing process.

Kuechly, who grew up in Cincinnati and played at Boston College, has helped with teammates’ charities but now has one of his own.

“There really was no reason not to do it. I don’t have a foundation or a deal like that,” Kuechly said. “And it’s for a good cause, obviously.”

Steve Luquire, the CEO and founding partner of a Charlotte-based advertising and public relations agency, approached Kuechly six weeks ago about volunteering with Project Life.

Luquire’s wife, Vicki, underwent a successful bone marrow transplant in October after being diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the blood and bone marrow.

Steve Luquire, who has worked closely with the Panthers and is a friend of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, thought Kuechly would be a good representative for Project Life.

“I know that sports figures are strong endorsers of products if they’re the right person. And the first person I thought of was Luke Kuechly,” Luquire said. “He’s young. He’s an impressive young man. I know enough people at the Panthers who say what a quality individual he is. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a great-looking young man.”

Targeting young registrants

Kuechly, who returned to Boston College last winter to continue working on his degree, also is young enough to have cachet on college campuses.

David Lindsay, the founder and director of Project Life, said the organization targets college students because “their marrow tends to be healthier,” and they can stay on the national donor registry for more than 30 years until they’re 55.

Bone marrow transplants provide a potential cure for patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood cancers such as sickle cell anemia. The best matches are among siblings.

Lindsay, whose basketball career ended when he was diagnosed with leukemia before his senior season at West Charlotte, said there are about 10 million people on the bone marrow registry, compared with more than 100 million on the organ donor list.

Approximately six out of 10 people looking for a blood marrow match don’t fine one, according to Lindsay.

“We’re still growing. and that’s why having Luke Kuechly jump on board is such a huge thing,” Lindsay said. “He’s a great person that just happens to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL.”

An unexpected diagnosis

Lindsay was on his way to West Charlotte’s season opener at East Mecklenburg in 1988 when he stopped at his doctor’s office for an iron supplement. His doctor gave him a blood test, and discovered Lindsay had leukemia.

Lindsay didn’t play his senior season, but planned to walk on at Davidson the following year before the leukemia returned. Lindsay’s 7-year-old sister was a perfect match, and he had a successful bone marrow transplant in Minneapolis in 1990.

Lindsay hasn’t visited an oncologist in 22 years.

But while he was preparing to receive his transplant, Lindsay learned of two other young leukemia patients in Charlotte who died before they could find a match.

With the support of friends and then-Davidson president John Kuykendall, Lindsay launched an effort to get college students to volunteer as donors.

“There just weren’t enough people on the (national registry) list,” Lindsay said. “To have all these students to rally around this idea – let’s get people to sign up and be willing to donate if they were a match – people were able to get on that cause pretty easily and quickly.”

Lindsay held annual donor drives at Davidson and Presbyterian College, where he was the chaplain at the small school in Clinton, S.C. He returned to Charlotte in 2010 to serve as Project Life’s director when it became a nonprofit.

A growing database

The program has registered more than 8,000 potential donors. Lindsay hopes to hold donor drives at 25 schools by next spring, including the historically black college and universities in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Lindsay said the drives at the CIAA schools can help a population in need of matching donors.

Lindsay said one of the biggest questions from volunteers is whether the testing process will hurt. Kuechly was surprised to learn it’s nothing more than using a cotton swab to take samples from the inside of a person’s gum and cheeks.

“You originally think they’ve got to drill into your hip and do all that stuff. But it’s just a swab,” Kuechly said. “It’s real quick and easy and then you’re in the registry.”

Lindsay believes the registry will grow with Kuechly’s ability to reach young people.

“To have a peer of theirs as one of the faces, we really do think his involvement will lead directly to saved lives,” Lindsay said. “Who knows where it will go from here? We hope this will be on every college campus one day.”

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