Rhode Island's Matt Greenhalgh: A Hero's Welcome Return
2011 CAA Football Spring/Summer Feature Series
By Zach Burrus, CAA Communications
He never gave it much thought. The odds were about 1 in 20,000, so why should he have? But then he got the call, nearly a year later. Matt Greenhalgh was the one. He was someone's needle in the haystack; the chance golden ticket of Charlie Bucket; the Tom Brady of the 2000 NFL draft.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, it's safe to say that Greenhalgh was your prototypical college football player. It was the season-opener at Buffalo early last September and the Rhode Island sophomore center could not have been more psyched about stepping onto the field as a starter to begin the 2010 campaign... that is until he suffered a season-ending foot injury in the game's second quarter.
This was clearly not the way it was supposed to go. Not in the season opener. Not after earning the starting spot. And this is not even to mention the physical toll the injury took on the Chepachet, R.I., product. The sting of the squad's 31-0 loss to the Bulls certainly did not soften the blow either.
Greenhalgh's injury was as equally disheartening as it was inopportune. He admits that the aftermath was a trying time for him personally, explaining, "That was one of the toughest things I've ever been through; to go down in the second quarter of the first game and to see the success the team had and the struggles the team had. It was difficult not being able to participate and try to make things better."
Oftentimes, the most formidable challenge athletes are forced to overcome after an injury is the mental nature of the experience. As a natural-born competitor who was not accustomed to life stranded on the sidelines, Greenhalgh found it hard to beat back the bitterness and could not help but contemplate what could have been.
"I think if I had stayed healthy and if I had been able to play in those games, I truly believe we could have won our first two games and our record would have been significantly better. Who knows, we could have been in the playoffs, we could have been one of the top two or three teams in the conference as opposed to finishing the way we did."
Greenhalgh could not continue to dwell on the injury for too long, however, as he would soon find a new focus off the field. His unexpectedly abrupt end to the 2010 season would ultimately lead to an unforeseen beginning to an entirely new experience when he discovered that he was a match for a patient in desperate need of a bone marrow donation.
Because many people are on the registry and so few are found to be matches, Greenhalgh claims he honestly didn't give much thought to being determined as a match. But when he received the call in March, he says he was nothing but ecstatic.
He adds that the process itself was quite consuming. It involved numerous doctor visits and multiple trips to the Rhode Island Blood Center in Providence for blood work and paperwork. But Greenhalgh found the donation itself, which took place in April, to be fairly simple and straightforward.
"I received a couple of shots on five consecutive days that essentially boosted my immune system and increased by white blood cells and stem cells to eight times the normal level, which made me feel like I had flu-like symptoms. I was really achy and had a headache. On the fifth day, they essentially give you a blood transfusion... and they extract those extra stem cells and white cells. So, that was a pretty cool process to think that all of the blood in my body was pumped through this machine three times and they took out a half-gallon of fluid."
It should go without saying that Greenhalgh is selling himself short here. In all actuality, what he sees as a simple procedure must have been unbelievably taxing. Those five days have literally made him a lifesaver.
Greenhalgh is fully aware that he has likely saved someone's life as a result of donation. But, in addition to the obvious outcome his donation had on the recipient, Greenhalgh's efforts go beyond that one individual. He explains, "My donation didn't only affect one person. It affected that person's family and that person's friends. So, just thinking about the number of people that I could have potentially helped out and eased the pain in their lives was a great feeling."
Given the limited and anonymous communication donors and recipients are restricted to during the year following the surgery, Greenhalgh has been left in the dark as to what effect his donation has had on the recipient. He is hoping that he will have the opportunity to write a letter at the six-month mark this fall.
"I would just like to ask if everything was successful. That's the most important thing to me. I'm hoping and praying that the person's illnesses and diseases have been cured or their pain eased. I'm just hoping that it did affect other people and that there's a positive outcome. That's all I could really hope and ask for."
In the meantime, Greenhalgh has become a true champion of the bone marrow cause. Going through the experience firsthand, he has a direct knowledge of the process and the urgent need for bone marrow donations. His outreach efforts have included everything from recruiting family members and friends for the registry to helping lead the Rams' Bone Marrow Drive in April (which over its history has added more than 700 individuals to the National Marrow registry) to walking with a bone marrow group in the Rhode Island Blood Center's "Pints for Life Walk" this past month. He says, "I just want to make sure that people understand the message that they too can potentially save someone's life, but they have to be on the registry."
His donation was a decidedly positive end to a year that began on such a sour and negative note. Now well beyond the injury and his donation, Greenhalgh can fully concentrate on the season ahead. Starter or not, he just wants to be back playing the game he loves alongside his teammates.
"My mentality right now is to try to get back and get ready to play football in the CAA again... This season I want to be on the field and be the starter - to get my spot back. And ultimately, if I'm not returning to be the starter, I just want to help the team win, whether that's putting me on field goal protection or putting me on the offensive line. I want to win, I want to succeed and I want to be a part of it."
Success in Greenhalgh's eyes does not simply come in the form of wins, but a conference championship. According to him, "Anything less is going to be a failure in our eyes."
To win Greenhalgh acknowledges it is going to take more consistency than the team has shown in recent years. "Last year we played Delaware [2010 CAA Champions and FCS national runner-up] much better than we played some of the lesser teams in the conference. I think that if we play our A-game every game, we'll be a force to be reckoned with. So, consistency is definitely something we're going to work on."
Greenhalgh speaks the truth. Consistency will be as important as ever as the Rams vie for their first conference championship and playoff appearance in more than 25 years. After knocking off nationally ranked Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Villanova last season, Rhody has proven it is capable of joining the CAA's upper echelon and ending its decades-long postseason drought. Even so, in order to better its 5-6 record from a year ago and get to where it wants to be moving forward, the team must rise to the occasion in nonconference play and maintain more consistency across its league slate.
As Greenhalgh knows all too well, the Rams must also be largely injury-free in 2011 to make a leap up the conference ladder. With health comes consistency and with consistency comes wins. If the goal is more tallies in the wins column, the Rams will have to count on the health of standouts like Greenhalgh, who hopes to play hero in his first season back.
But anyone who knows Greenhalgh's story knows that real heroes aren't made on the field, but rather in the hearts of those oft-unknown folks who count on them the most in times of great need. Given his talent and tremendous work ethic, Greenhalgh will most assuredly have the triumphant return he has envisioned for nearly a year now. Nevertheless, regardless of the impact he has on his team's success this season, he will always be defined by the impact he has already made.
For more information on becoming a bone marrow donor or to join the registry, please visit the National Marrow Donor Program's website.