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Reporter and ‘Ultimate Teammate’ on a mission

By Larry Stewart

Times Staff Writer

Steve Rom, a sportswriter, calls his best friend, a former professional football player Rod Payne, his “Ultimate Teammate.”

He calls his doctor, David Snyder, his “coach,” the one responsible for laying out a game plan.

And on Friday, Rom met his “most valuable player,” Annette Lechler.

Rom, 32, was one of two bone marrow transplant recipients who met their donors for the first time at the City of Hope's 29th annual “Celebration of Life.”

The other was Alexis Pellicane, 9, of Escondido, whose donor is Teresa Tassinari, 48, of Plymouth, Mass.

Lechler, 38, the mother of two from a small town near Freisburg, Germany, flew to Los Angeles for the occasion and planned to spend the weekend with Rom before flying home.

Payne, an All-American center at Michigan and a member of the 2000 Baltimore Raven Super Bowl championship team, flew in from his home in Miami to be with his friend and meet Lechler at the cancer center in Duarte.

“This is like meeting the President after winning the Super Bowl,” Payne said. “The hard work has already been done.”

Rom learned he had acute lymphocytic leukemia in December 2001. At the time, Rom, originally from West Los Angeles, was working for the Ann Arbor News in Michigan. He ended up undergoing treatment at the City of Hope, where Dr. Snyder headed up what came to be known as “Team Rom.”

Rom calls his mother, Paula, and Payne “co-captains” of the team that consisted of City of Hope staff members, as well as family and friends.

“This may sound strange,” Rom said, “because I sure didn't feel that way when I was going through it, but my illness was the best thing that ever happened to me. It showed me that I wasn't alone in the world, that I had tremendous support from so many friends.”

It was Payne who gave Rom the most support, often flying to Los Angeles to be with his friend and lecture him about never giving up.

While undergoing treatment, Rom began doing some free-lance writing for The Times' sports department. Between March 2002 and September 2004, he reviewed 22 sports books in the “Hot Corner” column. He also wrote a story about USC football players visiting City of Hope a few days before defeating Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2004.

Now Rom, a slightly built white man, and Payne, a nearly 300-pound black man, are writing a book together about Rom's battle with cancer and their relationship.

Rom describes it as sort of combination of a “Brian's Song” and a “Tuesdays With Morrie” -- “only with a happy ending.”

Added Rom: “Our goal with the book is to put a Super Bowl champion in every hospital room.”

Readers can reach Larry at larry.stewart@latimes.com