Football Player Donates Stem Cells, Saves Life

A good athlete is often called on to save a game. This is the story of a star football player who was asked to save a life of someone he didn't even know. CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews has the latest example of "The American Spirit."

There were four finalists last night for the Gagliardi Trophy, basically the Heisman for Division III college football. But for finalist Matt Hoffman learning if he'd win wasn't the suspense of the night.

Meeting cancer patient Warren Sallach was.

Last year Matt donated his bone stem cells - in an anonymous donation that went to Sallach. Sallach is now cancer-free, thanks to Hoffman.

"How you feeling," Hoffman asked.

"Better now," Sallach replied.

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Outside the awards ceremony, the donor from New Jersey, and the patient from Texas met for the first time with families. Both men said they needed to meet but worried about what to say.

"There's nothing you can say except thank you and that doesn't cover it," Sallach said. It's not too strong to say that Hoffman saved his life.

"The only thing he could do after what I went through to donate to him is to feel better and get better," Hoffman said.

In Division III football, Hoffman was the fearless star and leader of the Rowan University team.

But doctors told him that the drugs he needed to even donate stem cells would force an end to his junior year season. It was no contest.

More information on bone stem cell donation

"It's a football game. They come and go," Hoffman said. "You have a man's life. It was very easy for me to choose."

He also chose to have Warren's family sit at the center table during the awards. Sallach's wife Becky said she was grateful, not just for this, but for every second.

"With the disease, your hope is shattered," she said. "Now we have hope."

In the end, the coveted trophy went to another worthy finalist, Eric Watt of Trine University in Indiana.

Matt Hoffman did not win a football award, but the larger prize - the gift of life award - he'd won that already.

10,000 Americans are told every year their best chance of surviving cancer or bone related disease will come from a bone marrow transplant or bone stem cell transplant.

It may surprise most people to learn that stem cell transplants are now far more common than bone marrow transplants - and - it's far more likely your donor is not a relative.

Matches between anonymous donors and patients rose sharply last year with more than 5,000 non-relative matches and transplants. Plus, the success rate, meaning the patient survives at least another year, is thought to be around 54 per cent.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.