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FSU aids Fishers' fight with deadly disease

7/11/2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Kevin Haplea says he was looking to put his new-found idle time to good use. Free moments are a rarity for major-level college football players and are often unwelcome -- forced on a player recovering from a serious injury.

Candi Fisher, wife of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, believes it to be something more divine. And why wouldn't she as her 9-year-old son battles a rare, incurable disease with an average life expectancy of 33 years and mortality rate of 80 percent before the age of 18?

"I felt like it was divine intervention with how Kevin ended up coming from Penn State where [Uplifting Athletes] was founded and he had an injury last season and had extra time and it was one thing after another that fell in place to make this happen," Candi said in an interview with ESPN.com. "He took the initiative and it speaks volumes for the kind of kid he is."

The initiative was organizing Florida State's inaugural Lift for Life, a fundraiser and offense versus defense lifting competition taking place at 4 p.m. ET on the Seminoles' campus Friday.

A redshirt senior tight end at Florida State, Haplea tore a ligament in his knee in June 2013, a little more than a month before preseason practice. Unable to contribute on the field during the Seminoles' national title run, he was intent on emotionally helping a reeling family and community. In 2011, Jimbo and Candi's son Ethan was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a rare medical condition that affects roughly 1 in 131,000 people. Fanconi anemia prevents bone marrow from making enough new blood cells, which leads to bone marrow failure. Risks of Leukemia and other forms of cancer are significantly higher and affect Fanconi anemia patients at much earlier ages. The Fishers have developed the Kidz1stFund, which raises awareness and money to help find a cure.

As Haplea rehabbed his knee, he drew upon his first few years at Penn State, where he played before transferring in the summer of 2012. In 2003, Penn State players created the first Lift for Life to raise money and awareness for a rare kidney cancer afflicting a player's father. Born from that event and the ones that followed annually was Uplifting Athletes, a national non-profit. There are now 21 chapters across college campuses, each in support of a different rare disease.

"I had originally thought about [an FSU chapter] when I first found out about Fanconi anemia and Kidz1stFund, but there was so much going on when I first got there," Haplea said in an interview with ESPN.com. "I was literally sitting around one day after I got hurt in the summer and thought if there's any time to get it started this is it."

Haplea walked into Fisher's office last summer and approached him about an inaugural Lift for Life event to raise money for Fanconi anemia. The offense and defense square off in a series of strongman competitions to help solicit donations from fans. Fisher was floored at Haplea's charity. Often injured players feel isolated from the team, but Haplea volunteering to help Ethan, who Haplea now sees as a younger brother. As of midnight Friday, the event has raised $11,708.

"It was a tremendous act of kindness and one we really appreciate," Fisher said in an interview with ESPN.com. "It's a tremendous act from our players on how much they understand their role and helping their community is important. I'm very proud of them and happy to coach and be around them."

Haplea's actions come at a critical time for Ethan and the Fishers. While Ethan is still playing baseball and appears physically healthy -- he is considered smaller for his age -- the brutality with Fanconi is there are no predictors of when a bone marrow transplant is needed. Doctors originally estimated in 2011 he would likely require a transplant during a three-to-five year window. During his annual visit to the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital this past spring, doctors found Ethan's levels have dropped only minimally and remains in mild bone marrow failure.

The Fishers, who have raised more than $2 million to date through Kidz1stFund for research at Amplatz, hope the funds they have contributed will improve the statistics and quality of life by the time Ethan needs a transplant, which will have to come outside of the family. According to the Kidz1stFund website, two decades ago only one out of seven Fanconi anemia patients survived an unrelated bone marrow donor transplant. That number has since jumped to six out seven.

"He's holding strong and our prayer and hope is we can keep doing what we are doing with Kidz1st and raise awareness and money and help the University of Minnesota find some breakthroughs," Candi said, "so when it's time for a transplant, maybe it's a different treatment plan from what it would have been."

Asked if he would have created an FSU chapter and organized the program's first Lift for Life if he did not originally lose his senior season, Haplea is honest. There just would not have been enough time.

Now, he is working on mentoring the Seminoles' underclassmen in hopes to find the next chapter leader.

"It's a family atmosphere here and Ethan and [older brother Trey] are always hanging around the stadium, always at the games, in the cafeteria for dinner," Haplea said. "We treat them like they're our very own brothers."

Said Candi: "They're family to us and the fact they want to give back and promote a cause that's near and dear to us is very special."