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Centered By A Miracle "If ever I needed a Christmas miracle, it was then."

By STEVE ROM Sun Staff Reporter 12/28/2003

The news arrived just after nightfall, two years ago this past Friday. It was delivered to me quickly, coldly, by an emergency room doctor I had just met. "We examined your blood," the doctor said, giving no sign of the wrecking ball headed my way, "and we think it might be leukemia." Before those words, I fully expected this gray-haired man in a white coat to tell me to go home and sleep it off. It being the severe flu-like symptoms I had been experiencing the previous three days. Instead, he was telling me to say good-bye to the life I had known, one I had worked so hard for -- on the day after Christmas, for St. Nicholas' sake! Suddenly, the joy, renewal and warmth of Yuletide was replaced by anger, frustration and fear for my life. If ever I needed a Christmas miracle, it was then.

* * *

Miracles, I soon learned, come from odd places. Even more odd is finding they've been in your midst all along. My first miracle that unforgettable Christmas came nearly two decades earlier, when I developed cancer when I was 9. The tumor in my spine required an operation and 75 weeks of chemotherapy and full-body radiation to destroy. Something about beating cancer once sure comes in handy if you ever get it again. The next miracle, it turned out, had been in my life for more than two years. That's when I began my sports-writing career at the Ann Arbor News in 1999, after embarking on my senior year at the University of Michigan. As fast as the mail could travel from Michigan to my hometown of Los Angeles, where I was being treated at UCLA Medical Center (the same place I was treated as a child and vowed never to darken the door of again), I began to receive cards and letters from co-workers wishing me well. Hundreds, maybe. Knowing the backing I had from them, as well as my immediate family, softened the blow of the daily, and sometimes hourly, news of upcoming chemotherapy treatments, percentages of survival, fertility concerns, and other grim matters one faces while imprisoned in the hospital with leukemia. However, the fact remained, I was battling a potentially deadly blood disease -- acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL - - and correspondence alone wasn't going to save me. Though skilled doctors and nurses, advanced medicine, prayers and a great deal of luck would ultimately contribute to my survival, my biggest miracle was delivered to me simply by a friend.

* * *

I met Rod Payne early in summer 2001. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, one who couldn't believe I had never heard of Rod. A starting center for the Michigan football team from 1992- 96, Rod went on to play four years in the NFL, the acquaintance noted. Though the first three were marred by injuries and consistent losing with the Cincinnati Bengals, Rod's final one, I learned, was capped with sweet redemption -- a Super Bowl- winning season with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Rod was retired now, and pursuing various career opportunities in Ann Arbor. What struck me as unusual about him was how affable and gregarious he came across. Though an ominous presence at more than 6 feet tall and nearly 300 pounds, he had a natural, welcoming demeanor, like a giant teddy bear. After we got to talking, I learned more about Rod, including the fact we had a lot more in common than our alma matter. It turned out, we are only children, raised by our mothers in broken homes, with Rod growing up in Miami. And though we both value where we come from, we didn't think twice about leaving home to attend college, mostly because we wanted to try something new. For those reasons and more, we got along terrifically, like long-lost friends.

* * *

Rod and I continued our discussion, and our learning about each other, long after that day. Soon, we were having late- night conversations in my apartment, while enjoying the cool, comfortable Ann Arbor summer nights. Mostly we talked about football, and how 13 surgeries forced Rod to walk away from the game well before his prime. Now all he had were the memories of the sport he had never played before high school yet managed to become a top college recruit. And though he played the relatively invisible position of center, Rod's teammates his senior year at Michigan thought enough about his leadership to vote him most valuable player that season. "Whenever I stepped on that field," Rod once told me, "I played to inspire."

* * *

Rod told me a lot more in the months during and after that summer. For whatever reason, maybe it was the fact I just listened and showed interest, he shared with me behind-the- scenes stories about playing football at Michigan, in the pros, in the Super Bowl. For a sportswriter, it was an amazing opportunity. Even more amazing to me -- someone who has never been an athlete and thus never had that unique camaraderie with teammates -- getting to hear all the life's lessons Rod learned while playing football for nearly half his life was invaluable. One day, as Rod and I looked through some of his old team pictures, he mentioned that all of his coaches were like fathers to him. And, I suppose because of the giving person he is, Rod acted like my big brother, despite the fact I was considered the Michigan athletic department's arch-nemesis because of my job. At the University of Michigan, coaches and the media for the most part get along like cats and dogs, mainly because of all the controversial stories floating around about the high- profile school. Yet here was this Michigan Man, as they say, adopting me, someone responsible for a few of those stories. Why? "Michigan made me the man I am today," Rod said when I asked him one day, "but it doesn't own me." Later that day, I began to think maybe this relationship would last. Maybe Rod was as unique as I pegged him out to be when we met. It would be one miraculous evening in late December 2001 when I'd find out how right I was.

* * *

I couldn't remember if Rod had told me he was coming to L.A. By then, I was two days into my chemotherapy treatments, and the morphine, used to sedate me, had long since kicked in. At some point, the anger with which I initially greeted my fate had given way to numbness, and I had entered another place. It was a scary, unfamiliar place as I recall, and quite lonely, like a man lost in a desert for weeks. Then, as if a torrent of rain suddenly fell over me, I was snapped back into reality. Instantly, the empty pictures my eyes and mind had delivered me those first few days in the hospital, were filled with a glorious, welcoming sight: the massive frame of Rod Payne passing through the door. That's when it hit me. After I phoned Rod to tell him not to pick me up from the airport the next day, that my week-and-a- half vacation home had been indefinitely extended, he must have told me to sit tight, for the cavalry was on its way. Still, was this real?

* * *

After Rod dropped his NFL-issued duffel bag on the cold, tiled floor and made his way over to my bed to give me a bear hug I can still feel to this day, I knew it was. "What's up, Bro?" he said casually, as if we were back in my apartment in Ann Arbor. Within an hour, it felt like we were. A University of Michigan flag, dark blue with a yellow block "M" in the middle, adorned the wall. Rod's golfball- sized Super Bowl ring rested on my bedside table. And this giant of a man was flipping through the channels of my wall- mounted television set looking for ESPN or a movie channel. As I soaked in the scene, I began to realize my antiseptic hospital room, a one-time chamber of horrors for me, was actually a place of healing. The very next morning, the first of three I'd wake up to find my friend sleeping on a rickety, fold-up cot next to my bed, I discovered the lessons Rod shared with me since we met that summer were not over.

* * *

I was scheduled to receive a blood transfusion. I got my first transfusion the day before Rod arrived, and dreaded every second of it. The sight of someone else's beet-red blood seeping through an IV tube and into my arm was more than I could bare. So when a pair of nurses marched into my room with that second bag of blood, I recoiled in my bed, refusing to cooperate. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Rod begin to stir, causing me to stop my tirade. And it was then I realized just why Rod was in L.A. He wasn't there for his health, he was there for mine. Rod calmly but forcefully asked the nurses to leave the room. Then he stared at me with daggers in his eyes, like a coach about to berate one of his players for making a stupid decision on the field. Rod thought for a second, as he often did before professing anything of importance, and told me: "You have to trust what the doctors and nurses are doing. They're here to help you." More importantly, he said, "You've got to have faith in God. He is the only one in control of all this." Before finishing, Rod told me one more thing. It would turn out to be something I'd use as a calming device every time I became fearful over some procedure. "You've got to get your head on straight!" Rod insisted. When the nurses returned, I didn't even look at them. I just spotted a mark on the wall, glued my eyes to it, and got my head on straight.

* * *

After a few similar episodes over the next couple days, including one where Rod taught a doctor a lesson for paying more attention to his football resume than me -- "The patient is there!" Rod said to him, sending a chill throughout the room -- it was time for him to go back to Michigan. Shortly before his departure, Rod cleared the room again, this time of my mother and other family members. He began to remind me about his many injuries. He talked about the gut-wrenching times he was carted off the field, rushed to a hospital and presented with devastating news: a broken clavicle, a separated shoulder, a dislocated knee. He told me whatever that news happened to be, the first thing he said was, "Let's ride." In other words, "Now that we know what the problem is, what are we going to do to fix it?" This would be hard, Rod said, but I could do it. Just as he did, always returning to the game. With that, Rod and I hugged. We prayed, we cried and we promised we would see each other again. It was a promise I didn't know if I could keep; my chances of survival, I was told, were between 50 percent and 70 percent. Still, no matter how it all turned out, I told Rod, at least I'm lucky enough to know I have a friend I can call on anytime, anywhere, to be by my side if I ever need help. It's something I always wanted.

* * *

Just under a month later, the 80 percent diseased blood cells in my body thankfully were reduced to 5 percent, a number that put me in remission. I could leave the hospital, for now. After a couple days at my mother's apartment in West L.A., which I spent mostly lying on the couch worrying about how I needed to find a donor for a bone marrow transplant to have a chance to be completely cured, Rod showed up again. Walking through the door late one night in early February 2002, the first thing he said was . . . how terrible I looked. Always one to speak his mind, Rod's words were harsh but true. It had been over a month, I realized, since I'd eaten anything of substance. I weighed just 135 pounds, or 40 less than when I left Michigan six weeks earlier. Couple that with the toll the chemo had taken on my body, zapping my strength to zero, and I looked a mess. Before sitting down, Rod was in the kitchen preparing me something to eat. He settled on a can of beef stew he found in the cupboard. Though it looked tasty, and I appreciated the sentiment, I could barely swallow a bite. "I can't eat it," I said, picking at the hot stew with my fork. "It hurts." Rod didn't say anything, he just rummaged through a drawer, grabbed a tablespoon and slapped it in front of me. "Eat, dammit!" he said. "This is recovery now! I don't care if it hurts. Do you think I wanted to eat anything after all of those surgeries? You have to eat to get stronger. This is survival now!" After chewing on those words, I slowly scooped up a spoonful and, as much as it pained me, ate it. Then I forced down another spoonful. And another. By the last one, I was on my way to recovery. Three days later, after more advice and instruction from Rod (along with a few good times tooling around L.A.), he returned to Michigan after what would be his last trip across the country to help me.

* * *

Two months later, a time I spent gingerly walking around the block, eating and simply avoiding moping around any way I could, I received a call from the City of Hope in nearby Duarte, Calif., a national leader in bone marrow transplants. They had found a donor for me, a 34-year-old mother of two from Germany. I began the transplant, which would require another grueling, 30-day stint in the hospital, on May 4, 2002. By the end of August, after the required 100-day, in-house recovery period to build back my immune system, I took another blood test. The results read: One hundred percent healthy cells. Cured. About a week later, after the tears of joy had dried, I picked up the dust-covered suitcase I brought with me from Michigan nine months earlier, and ceremoniously headed to the airport.

* * *

In a matter of hours, I saw Rod walking toward me in the baggage claim area. Though he was a couple carousels away, he appeared larger than ever. As we hugged like we did in my hospital room at UCLA, I was reminded of all my friend had done for me during my fight for survival. It felt as if we were soldiers returning home from war. A few months later, as we sat in the house we'd rent for nearly a year until I was hired at the Daily Sun this September, I asked Rod what exactly happened after I told him I was sick. How'd he come to jumping on a plane and flying to L.A. so quickly? Instinct, he said. His teammate was in trouble. "After I heard you got leukemia, I knew I had to be there," Rod said earlier this week from Ann Arbor, where he's building houses and customizing cars, two of his many loves. Though Rod and I are a country apart again, I have the comfort of knowing if I ever need him by my side again, he'll be there to deliver me another miracle. Just as he did that unforgettable Christmas two years ago.

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