That summer, William & Mary offensive lineman Mark Williamson was at home in Greene County, Va., when he received a call from Be the Match, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people with life-threatening diseases to potential bone marrow donors. Williamson, who had joined the global registry along with most of his teammates by swabbing his cheek at a bone marrow drive on campus a few months earlier, was told he might be a match for an 18-year-old boy with leukemia.
Understanding full well that the donation process would jeopardize his upcoming redshirt freshman season, Williamson committed to going through with it without hesitation.
“I have two parents with huge hearts, and I knew where the coaching staff’s hearts lied,” Williamson, now a senior captain, said in a phone interview this week. “It was a very big privilege to be able to say yes, right then and there. I didn’t have to think about it or weigh my options. It was: ‘Let’s do this. You tell me where I need to be.’ ”
Williamson underwent additional blood work, which confirmed he was a perfect match for Plemons. Back in Columbus, that news brought much-needed hope to Plemons and his family.
“When I first got diagnosed, I was really scared,” Plemons said this week. “You automatically think it’s a death sentence, and it very well could’ve been if Mark wouldn’t have donated."
“To watch him go through that was absolutely heartbreaking for me,” Brandie Cobb, Plemons’s mom, said of the months leading up to her son’s transplant. “We had a lot of really deep conversations because there were possibilities either way and the hospital didn’t hide the bad possibilities. I never thought I would be doing a living will with my 18-year-old child. He’s just awesome. I’ve learned about how strong he can actually be, that’s for sure.”
Williamson dressed for William & Mary’s first three games of the 2016 season and played in one game before undergoing a surgical procedure to harvest his bone marrow at VCU. Plemons’s transplant took place Sept. 20. Williamson, who returned to practice a few weeks later but did not play the remainder of the season, received word in November that Plemons was doing well enough to spend Thanksgiving at home.
“That made it all worth while,” Williamson said. “That was very powerful for me.”
Plemons’s recovery in the three years since included a few setbacks, and he was hospitalized a couple of times for infections, but his body is now producing completely normal blood cells, Cobb said. As of last week, he is off all medications for the first time since his diagnosis. By working out regularly, Plemons has lost almost all of the weight he gained as a side effect of the steroids he was prescribed and said he is about to start a job as a package handler at UPS.
“He’s the healthiest he’s ever been,” said Cobb, who made the eight-hour drive to Williamsburg with her son Thursday night for an emotional meeting with Williamson that was three years in the making.
Confidentiality policies prevent anonymous patients and donors from connecting within the first year, but Be the Match helped Plemons and Williamson exchange contact information about six months ago. Williamson was provided what he thought was Plemons’s cellphone number and, after wrestling with what to say to a stranger with his own DNA pulsing through him, sent an introductory text message.
“I said, ‘Hi, my name is Mark Williamson, and I believe you’re the person I donated bone marrow to,’ ” he said. “It turned out that it was actually his mom’s number. The response I got back was a heartfelt, tear-jerking message from her about how happy she was.”
When Plemons learned Williamson’s identity, he also read about his journey from walk-on to team captain. They chatted via Facebook Messenger and text message, and Williamson suggested he come to a game. Williamson said his teammates were talking about Friday’s meeting all week. After Plemons watched Friday’s practice from the President’s Suite at Zable Stadium, two of the Tribe’s co-captains led him onto the field, where Williamson was waiting. Plemons and Williamson embraced in front of the entire team, and Plemons was presented a William & Mary jersey with Williamson’s No. 75 and his own name on the back.
William & Mary’s bone marrow donation program has long been a model for other schools, with its annual Alan Buzkin Memorial Bone Marrow Drive dating from 1991. The football team has organized its own bone marrow drive for the past six years, a tradition that started under legendary coach Jimmye Laycock, who retired last season, four years after losing his close friend and former Tribe football star Russ Brown to leukemia. Roughly one in 430 people who join the registry receive a call to donate, and Williamson was the second Tribe football player to become a donor in three years, joining former kicker John Carpenter, who sacrificed part of his senior season in 2014 to help save a life.
For Williamson, there was another factor in his decision to donate, a personal tragedy that has shaped his outlook on life. Five days after Williamson graduated from William Monroe High in June 2015, Craig Jeffers, one of his best friends and former teammates, died in a car accident.
“One of the things that my friends and family talked about was how much life he had to live,” Williamson said. “I was given this opportunity to give this 18-year-old boy fighting for his life a chance to have all the time that my friend didn’t. … I look forward to seeing all the great things he’s going to do in life."
With three games left in his senior season, Williamson, who is on pace to graduate in December, is busy planning his own future. On Wednesday, he received a conditional offer from the Albemarle County Police Department. First-year William & Mary coach Mike London, who spent time as a police officer and detective in Richmond before beginning his coaching career, wrote Williamson’s recommendation letter.
“He’s truly an amazing individual and an out-front leader,” London said of Williamson, who shares a special bond with his coach.
In 2003, London was a bone marrow donor for his 7-year-old daughter, Ticynn, and has been an advocate for bone marrow donation ever since.
“There are two miracles I’ve seen,” London said, “including one I’ve been directly involved in.”
Ticynn London, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in athletic training at Lynchburg University, will celebrate her 24th birthday in Williamsburg on Saturday when William & Mary hosts Rhode Island in what’s being billed as the Be the Match game. Plemonswill accompany Williamson and the Tribe’s other captains to midfield for the pregame coin toss as part of the effort to raise awareness about the donor program and registry.
“It’s one of those experiences in life that you can’t put into words,” Williamson said of being a donor. “You kind of just have to feel it. Because of the attention on this Be the Match game, I hope there are a lot more people in the world that get to experience this feeling.”
Plemons said he was nervous but excited about all of the attention he would receive this weekend.
“I’m not one to go out in crowds and stuff, but I think of all the people who might sign up because of this,” Plemons said. “So many people could be a 10 out of 10 match. I’m hoping it just blows up to where everyone signs up. I didn’t know anything about it until I was diagnosed, and now I’m really grateful for it. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for him.”