|Brett Kasper and the Titans have Phoenix Bridgegroom on their minds and in their prayers.
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com
|Phoenix Bridegroom and Brett Kasper, her bone marrow donor, met last month when her family made the trip to a UW-Oshkosh football game.
By Erik Buchinger
Coming off one of the biggest wins in program history, UW-Oshkosh head coach Pat Cerroni had a special message during his postgame news conference.
After beating St. Thomas on the road in a 34-31 thriller on Saturday to advance to the national semifinals, Cerroni concluded his opening statement with, “We’re thinking about you, Phoenix; we love you.”
Phoenix Bridegroom is a 10-year-old girl from Chesterton, Ind. When she was 5 years old, Phoenix was diagnosed with leukemia and was deemed cancer-free in June 2014 after a 3-year battle with the disease.
In October of that year, the cancer returned.
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Two months after Phoenix’s relapse, the family was notified they were fortunate enough to find a match for a bone marrow transplant through the Be the Match registry.
Following a successful transplant surgery and one full year of no contact between the recipient and donor, the Bridegroom family found out donor was UW-Oshkosh starting quarterback Brett Kasper.
Phoenix’s mother Tammy Bridegroom reached out to Kasper through email this spring thanking him for saving her daughter’s life.
After the UW-Oshkosh invited the Bridegroom family to a game through a video featuring several members of the team including Kasper, the Bridegroom family responded with a video of their own with Phoenix saying, “Hey, Titans, this is Phoenix. I’m coming on Nov. 5, so be ready because this is going to be epic.”
Phoenix and her family visited Oshkosh the day before the game to meet Kasper and spend time with the team.
“It was a relief to finally meet them in person and finally meet Phoenix’s personality,” Kasper said. “It was a real joy, and that day was obviously very exciting. We’re very happy to have them as part of my family now.”
The day after meeting Kasper, the Bridegroom family attended the UW-Oshkosh football team’s 51-29 victory vs. UW-La Crosse on Nov. 5.
“We left Wisconsin knowing that we would be connected forever and that we would absolutely return,” Tammy said in an email. “We still feel the same way.”
Just 10 days after that memorable day, Phoenix felt sick with a cough, stuffy nose, fever and pain in her side, so she stayed at a children’s hospital. Two days later, Phoenix was diagnosed with leukemia once again.
“We found out when Phoenix’s mom put it up on Facebook that she was sick and in the hospital,” Cerroni said. “Once we found out, Brett and I talked immediately, and I told the team right away in our team meeting.”
Kasper said he was devastated when he saw Tammy’s Facebook post on Phoenix’s page, which has nearly 1,700 members.
“It was one of those moments your heart just sinks,” Kasper said. “When we heard the news, it was very sad, but just being able to meet Phoenix a week or two before that, we really got to get a good sense of what her personality is like. After fighting off cancer before, we knew she would be a fighter, and she wouldn’t let this take her down. She is going to continue to fight. At such a young age, she’s shown a great deal of bravery.”
Tammy said it was tough to break the news to those who have been following Phoenix’s story.
“This is devastating news to our family, and we were sad to have to share it with the people who had just fallen in love with Phoenix,” Tammy said. “We knew that Coach Cerroni and Brett Kasper would be heartbroken. However, when we brought Phoenix to Oshkosh just about a month ago, we built relationships with these people that were deep, meaningful and permanent.”
In July, Kasper was nominated for the 2016 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which recognizes student-athletes for acts of good in their communities. Kasper was one of the 24 college football players selected to the Good Works Team in September. After a few months of voting, he was named the first Division III player to be selected captain of the team.
An awards show will be held on Dec. 8 in Atlanta, which Kasper will be unable to make because he is getting ready to play John Carroll on Saturday for a spot in the national title game, but Kasper will attend the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 where he will be honored at halftime.
“I’m extremely proud of him and how he’s handled all this,” Cerroni said. “A lot of the credit goes to the Bridegroom family. They’re the ones who rallied their community to vote for him. I know this morning that when Phoenix found out he won, she smiled, and she hasn’t had a lot to smile about the last couple weeks.”
Phoenix was able to smile again after her and her family watched the opening of Cerroni’s postgame news conference.
“We watched the press conference after Saturday’s win, and when I heard Coach say to Phoenix, ‘We’re thinking about you, Phoenix…we love you,’ I was overwhelmed with emotion. We all wanted to give Coach a big hug and say, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for keeping my sweet Phoenix in your thoughts and prayers and for continuing to send our family love and support. We love being a part of such an amazing team. Hail Titans!”
Cerroni said he thought his postgame message was necessary “because it’s the right thing to do.” Kasper said he appreciated his coach’s comments on the Bridegroom family after the victory.
“I haven’t really expressed that to Coach yet,” Kasper said. “But after one of the biggest wins in our program’s history and coming off a huge win like that, obviously his emotions were running high, so to take the time to say that, it meant a lot to me.”
Although Phoenix is in her third battle with cancer, the family remains upbeat and is thankful for the UW-Oshkosh community.
“Our family continues to feel loved and supported by Coach Cerroni, the Kasper family and the UW-Oshkosh community,” Tammy said. “We want everyone to know that although Phoenix’s cancer came back, her bone marrow transplant was still a miracle that gave her 1.5 years of cancer-free life.”