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By Greg Johnson
SALEM, Va. – The first in-person meeting between Rowan football star Matt Hoffman and Texas citizen Warren Sallach didn’t go as either of them pictured.
After all, who expects to meet the man who saved your life washing his hair in the sink of a Salem Civic Center restroom?
But a winter snowstorm that canceled a flight, and an impromptu five-hour car ride on icy roads, led to the surreal scene where Hoffman was trying to clean up after a brutal travel day.
“I looked at (Hoffman) and said, ‘This is a hell of a place to meet,’ said Sallach, who received a life-saving blood stem cell donation from Hoffman in November 2009. “He said, ‘I’m Matt,’ and I said, ‘I’m Warren.’ ”
A wet handshake ensued, but neither man cared, since fate introduced them anonymously through science 13 months ago.
At that time, Sallach was facing dire circumstances from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His only chance of survival was finding a match for a transfusion through the National Marrow Donation Program. Hoffman, who registered in the program in the spring of 2009 along with his Rowan football teammates and hundreds of his classmates, turned out to be the miracle that Sallach needed.
After the transfusion takes place, protocol requires the recipient and the donor to remain nameless. If both parties agree, though, they can contact each other after a year has passed.
With encouragement from his wife Becky, 59-year-old Sallach telephoned the 21-year-old Hoffman on December 7. Both men had wanted this moment to happen, but they were at a loss for words at the beginning of the conversation.
“Saying ‘thank you’ just didn’t seem like enough,” said Sallach, who lives in Brenham, Tex., with Becky and their 11-year-old son Travis. “I was at a loss for words when (Hoffman) answered the phone.”
Hoffman added: “This is different because it is something I haven’t experienced before. How many times are you going to be in a situation where you’ve saved someone’s life and you discuss it with them?”
During their hour-plus conversation, Hoffman, who just completed his senior season at Rowan, suggested they meet in person. He invited Sallach to bring his family to Salem to attend the Gagliardi Trophy banquet that took place Thursday night.
Hoffman was one of four finalists for the award that goes to the Division III National Football Player of the Year. The award, which Trine quarterback Eric Watt ended up winning, is given to the player that best honors athletics, academics and community service.
Sallach and his family drove 70 miles to Houston on Thursday and made it through the dicey weather via a connection in Charlotte.
Hoffman’s travel day was much more hectic. His parents, Kevin and Joanne, along with older brother Kile, dropped him off at the airport in Philadelphia where he was to fly through Washington Dulles to get to Salem.
But Mother Nature changed those plans when the winter storm canceled his connecting flight. His parents and brother had decided to drive to Virginia, and as fate had it, they were a few miles past Washington, D.C., when they received a call from Hoffman about the cancelation. They turned the car and headed to pick him up.
The next five hours were tough driving.
“The roads were really bad during the first hour or two,” Kevin Hoffman said. “There was black ice out there, and at times, you could feel the car do a shimmy.”
They arrived safely around 5:30 p.m. and immediately ran inside the Salem Civic Center to wash up. That’s when Sallach happened to need to use the restroom himself.
“When I saw (Sallach) walking in, I had kind of profiled him a certain way,” said Matt Hoffman, who grew up in Burlington, N.J. “I was sure he would be a lean and tall older guy with a Texas accent. I thought it was probably him, and there I was with my head in the sink.”
Neither man really cared since the reason for their meeting far outweighed the awkwardness.
They were able to talk and take pictures with each other’s families and learn more about each other.
“The more I learn about him, the more impressed I am,” Sallach said. “His coach (Jay Accorsi) told me great things about him, too.”
Accorsi and Rowan Athletics Director Joy Solomon, who also chairs the Division III Football Committee, took part in the gathering, as well.
Accorsi organized the campus-wide National Marrow Donor Program registration at Rowan. About 700 people have registered for the program in two years.
When Hoffman decided to donate his blood stem cells, it meant he had to miss the final game of his junior season. Hoffman received shots for five straight days. The medication enlarges the spleen so more blood stem cells are produced. But that made it unsafe for him to play football, since the physical nature of the game might lead to the spleen rupturing, which can be deadly.
“Matt quickly said he had to do this,” Accorsi said. “The purpose of the registry was if you get a call about being a match for someone, you need to do this commitment. Matt didn’t blink.”
The procedure was relatively painless for Hoffman, who was the New Jersey Athletics Conference defensive player of the year this season with 21.5 tackles for loss.
When he first registered, medical personnel took a swab of his mouth for a DNA sample. If a preliminary match is reached, more extensive blood testing is done.
Once it was determined Hoffman was a match for Sallach, he took the shots to produce more blood stem cells. Then he went to the hospital where he was hooked up to a machine for six hours as the blood stem cells were extrapolated.
“Going through this is one of the best feelings in my life,” said Hoffman, who is playing in a Division II/III all-star game at Minnesota on Saturday. “The decision to miss the last game of the season last year wasn’t a hard one for me. I was proud to do it. I’m glad to see Warren is doing well.”
Hoffman, who has a 3.24 grade-point average in health and exercise science, had his blood stem cells removed in Philadelphia, and they were flown to Texas where Sallach was waiting.
“I was on pins and needles until I heard the plane had landed,” Becky Sallach said. “They had already given him the chemo to eliminate Warren’s immune system at that point. So nothing could happen to those blood stem cells.”
Obviously, going through this ordeal puts life in perspective for Sallach. He is about to spend another Christmas with Travis, who was excited to take his first airplane rides on Thursday, and celebrate his 10th wedding anniversary on New Year’s Day.
Simple things also stand out now.
“I enjoy seeing the sunshine in the morning,” said Sallach, who still fights fatigue and eye problems at times. “I’m slowly getting better, but this makes you realize what really is important in life.”
For Hoffman, the journey to Salem, meeting Sallach and being a finalist to receive Division III football’s most prestigious trophy all added up to a hard day to top.
“I guess it is all downhill from here,” Hoffman joked. “This whole experience is something I’ll never forget, and I’ll cherish it the rest of my life.”