A Leader on Penn’s Football Team Embraces ‘Big Moment’ Off the Field

In the spring of 2016, the members of Penn’s football team volunteered to run a table in Houston Hall where they encouraged students to sign up for a bone marrow registry through Be The Match. The players enthusiastically explained the process to students and encouraged friends to join the effort.

A freshman at the time, safety Sam Philippi took a few minutes to sign himself up, doing the required swab of the cheek.

“I was signing up with one of my friends and I said to him that it would be crazy if I was a match,” says the 20-year-old Philippi, who is from Orange County, Calif. “You sign up real quick and you forget about it the next day because you are involved in other activities. Until you get the call.”

That call came in the summer, informing Philippi he could possibly be a donor for a leukemia patient who needed a bone marrow transplant. Further testing throughout the fall led to the news in October: He was a match.

“You have the potential to save someone’s life,” Philippi says. “How do you say no to that?”

  For six hours Philippi was in a hospital bed, an IV in each arm, while his blood circulated through a machine to collect blood stem cells.

For six hours Philippi was in a hospital bed, an IV in each arm, while his blood circulated through a machine to collect blood stem cells.

In early December he went through the procedure to donate for the bone marrow transplant. One option for the procedure is not as invasive as the other: There is no long needle to extract marrow and the process is more like a blood donation. A week later Philippi says he felt back to normal.

“I really don’t feel I’ve done that much,” Philippi says. “But in a way I have at the same time.”

Penn’s football coaches are certain he has made a significant contribution, not only to the recipient, but to the effort by the University and the foundation to save lives.

“Sam had an opportunity to be a hero,” says Malik Hall, Penn football’s defensive line coach. “It’s like kicking the winning field goal, throwing the winning touchdown, or making the free throw for the win: You don’t realize that was a big moment until you are in that moment.”

Penn has participated in the Get in the Game program since its inception in 2008; more than 75 college football programs participated last year. “The exemplary leadership demonstrated by the coaching staff, the team, and most especially the students and student-athletes that have donated are the strength behind this program,” says Barbara Nolan, central region manager-community engagement for Be The Match. “Penn Football has been a passionate and committed contributor to our mission of saving lives.”

Penn Football has had more than 10 life-saving donors to date, including Robert Gawlas and J.P. Grant, who both matched and successfully donated in 2011.

“We always talk about giving back. We are blessed with a lot of great things at Penn. Not only the education, but with the chance with your health to be a part of athletics,” says the George A. Munger Head Coach of Football Ray Priore, adding that it is a “great thing” that the players can inspire people to possibly save a life by signing up for the registry.

Philippi is “out there in front, a definite leader” on the team, Priore says. He’s started each of his 20 career games as safety for Penn, had six interceptions, and 104 career tackles, helping lead the team to two Ivy League Championships.

 A Leader on Penn’s Football Team Embraces ‘Big Moment’ Off the Field

In the Oct. 29 game against Brown, with 1:28 to go, Philippi intercepted a Hail Mary pass that could have tied the game, saving the Penn win. As a result, he was named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week for week seven of the 2016 season. At the end of that season, he was selected for the All-Ivy team.

Agreeing to donate for the bone marrow transplant enhances his role as a leader, Hall says.

“That’s the guy we want to lead us through battles,” he says. “It definitely shows them he is selfless, but it makes people want to follow you, want to get behind you.”

We always talk about giving back. We are blessed with a lot of great things at Penn. Not only the education, but with the chance with your health to be a part of athletics.

Ray Priore, the George A. Munger Head Coach of Football

The hope is that the “moxy” Philippi brings to the registry drive will translate into more donors, Hall says. About one in every 430 registry members go on to donate to a patient, according to the foundation.

Philippi says he has some understanding of what cancer patients go through. His mother, Kathleen, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer six years ago. Within days of diagnosis, she had a double mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. He wrote about the experience for his college application essay.

“It just doesn’t impact that one person. It impacts their entire family,” Philippi says.

“When someone says it is curable or there is a potential cure, you can’t really let those people down,” he says. “If I would have had to do it for my mom, I would have done it in an instant. I felt like I had to do the same thing for this person.”

A graduate of JSerra Catholic High School, his faith played a part as well. “I see it as God working through me, being able to help this person out through me,” he says. “I see myself as being an instrument of helpfulness.”

Although concerned about the impact on their son—a possible reaction to medications, and this new responsibility on top of his already rigorous athletic and academic schedules—Philippi’s parents supported his decision.

  Philippi's parents supported his decision to donate. His mother, Kathleen, a breast cancer survivor, was with him through the procedure.

Philippi's parents supported his decision to donate. His mother, Kathleen, a breast cancer survivor, was with him through the procedure.

“Sam has always been really thoughtful and caring about other people,” his mother says. “He’s just always been like that, since he was little.”

She was with him during the six-hour procedure. Peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation is one of two methods of collecting blood-forming cells for bone marrow transplants.

Philippi was in a hospital bed, where he had to keep still with an IV in each arm. He watched Netflix as his blood circulated through a machine to collect the blood stem cells, going out one arm and into the other. The process is similar to that used when donating blood platelets.

The hospital experience was familiar, as Philippi has had severe reactions because of a peanut allergy, a characteristic he may pass on to the recipient. “I’ve had a great 20 years with a peanut allergy,” he says. “Hopefully he will as well.”

Back at the hotel, Philippi slept solid for four hours and woke up hungry. From then on he continued to regain his strength, even going to class the next day, wanting to catch up on assignments for his major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Now that he can describe the experience firsthand, Philippi says he is more motivated for this year’s drive. Be The Match created a link to track registrations as a result of his story.

If all goes well for the recipient of his donation, and they both agree, the two could meet in a year.

“I would love to meet that person and learn more about him,” Philippi says. “It’s a stranger right now, but hopefully a good friend in the future.”

  • Text by Louisa Shepard
  • Video by Denise Henhoeffer
  • Additional photos courtesy of Sam Philippi