Goalie Chris Seitz's biggest save

FC Dallas goalkeeper interrupted season to donate bone marrow

Updated: October 23, 2012, 7:14 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

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ALLAS -- At the moment when everything changed, when life became about more than stopping shots and winning soccer matches, FC Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz was where you could always find him on a mindless weekday afternoon: sitting in his office playing a testosterone-filled game of "Halo."

[+] EnlargeChris Seitz
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesFC Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz

The most important two hours of his day were over, a training session in which he pushed his body as hard as he could with the simple goal of improving. This was his life, that of a backup, where practice was often more important than the game. But now that work was over, it was time for play. Seitz and three of his teammates had met online and were hunting a group of strangers in a virtual reality. The task was simple: kill or be killed.

In the middle of it all, Seitz's phone vibrated. He first ignored the new email, then put his controller down and began to read. He couldn't believe the words staring back at him. "Bone marrow?" "Donor?" "Match?" Huh?

Four years ago, Seitz and his then teammates at Real Salt Lake -- along with hundreds of others in the tightly-knit MLS family -- registered to become bone marrow donors. It was a show of solidarity for Salt Lake midfielder Andy Williams' wife, Marcia, who was battling a rare form of leukemia.

In the years since, Seitz would receive a monthly newsletter from DKMS, the bone marrow center where he registered, and would delete it. But this email was different. This email involved a total stranger who needed help.

"Guys," Seitz said to his Dallas teammates online, "something has come up. There's this email. I gotta go."


I

n the world's most popular game, the role of the goalkeeper is that of savior. He is the one called upon when all other measures of defense fail. When a team has sliced its way through all 10 members of the opposition, it's on the keeper to jump, dive, kick, roll -- do anything and everything he can -- to keep the ball out of the back of the net. Do this well and you're a hero, an international soccer god. Fail and you'll quickly find yourself searching for a new goal to guard.

In the six years Seitz has played professional soccer, he has spent more time looking for a new home than any keeper would like. He came into the league in 2007 with all sorts of promise -- leaving the University of Maryland after his sophomore year to become the No. 4 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. There were those who suggested he had the highest ceiling of any American-born keeper to join MLS. But in the six seasons since, Seitz has played for three organizations and has failed to keep the starting job with any of them. He came closest in 2010, starting 22 matches for the expansion Philadelphia Union, but posted a 1.80 goals-against average, the highest mark that season for any keeper with more than one start.

Chris Seitz
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesChris Seitz joined FC Dallas in 2011.

The past two seasons in Dallas, he has backed up veteran Kevin Hartman while trying to learn and improve every day. Coaches say he has rarely sulked or complained and has instead built a reputation as a friendly, laid-back guy who is always trying to get better. It makes sense. These were the lessons taught by his mom and dad while he was growing up with his older sister, Caitlin, in the central California town of San Luis Obispo.

This past April, when Hartman suffered back spasms minutes before a match against Vancouver, Seitz stepped in and held the Whitecaps to just one goal in a 1-1 draw. A week later against the high-powered Landon Donovan- and David Beckham-led L.A. Galaxy, Seitz did the same in another 1-1 match. But after a five-game stint filling in for Hartman, he went back to the bench, back to rebuilding his career through practices, reserve matches and friendlies.

"It's tough for backups," he said. "But I really thought I had improved. I was starting to play well. The team was eyeing the playoffs. Then I got that email."

It was early August. The team had rebounded from a 14-match winless streak and was starting a push for the playoffs. Then everything changed. The email had come from DKMS, the largest bone marrow donor center in the world. The organization was founded in 1991 in Germany as "Deutsche Knochenmarkspenderdatei," which translates to German Bone Marrow Donor Center. DKMS Americas was founded in 2004.

The email explained that Seitz's name had appeared in the center's database as a potential match for a dying patient. It asked him to contact them as soon as possible if he wanted to help. The timing couldn't have been any more extraordinary.

In a little more than a week, Seitz's dad was scheduled to become a donor for the goalkeeper's uncle, who had been diagnosed with leukemia in January. Through a process called apheresis, doctors would remove blood from a vein in one of Michael Seitz's arms and send that blood through a separator to remove blood-forming cells and then re-inject the remaining blood into the other arm while the cells would go to the recipient.

"It was an amazing coincidence," Seitz said.

As he dialed the DKMS phone number, Seitz thought about the Sunday night family dinners he and his family had with Uncle John and his cousins and their grandma growing up. And he thought about Marcia Williams. In 2008, Seitz had been in his second year with Real Salt Lake when he watched the wife of popular teammate Andy Williams struggle with her own leukemia fight. The disease is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Marcia was the reason Seitz had agreed to have one of his cheeks swabbed to join the registry. She was the reason he had once worn a faded green "Soccer Unites Utah" wristband.

Now he found himself on the phone with a DKMS representative, listening to the woman explain that, if he was interested, he might have the opportunity to help save someone like Uncle John or Marcia.

"I told her I was in the middle of my season," Seitz said. "I told her I'd be willing to do everything I could but I needed more information. I couldn't just go to my team without knowing exactly how this would all work."

The woman told Seitz he was getting ahead of himself. He might not be the only match. He might not be the best match. A blood test would be needed to find out. Two weeks to a month after that, DKMS would call Seitz with an answer.

"Ten days later, the phone rang," Seitz said. "They told me I was by far the best match."


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he next day, Seitz walked into the office of FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman and asked for permission to leave the team. Up to that point, the only person Seitz had spoken to in the organization was trainer Skylar Richards. They had agreed to keep the subject to themselves, figuring there was no need to worry the team if Seitz wasn't even a match. But now that he was, they knew they couldn't keep quiet anymore.

"You never know how people are going to take something like that," Seitz said. "It's a business, after all. This has the potential to hurt them. But at the same time, it's about more than just a game. You just hope they'll back you."

DKMS told Seitz that because of the type of cancer his recipient had, the less invasive donation procedure his dad went through wasn't an option. Instead, Seitz would require surgery in which doctors would poke two holes in his lower back, then fish 32 needles through each of those holes to remove fresh marrow from the core of Seitz's bones. Doctors would then inject that marrow into the recipient.

For an average 25-year-old, the procedure might mean a few days of discomfort and a week or two of decreased activity. For a professional goalkeeper, who makes a living diving on the exact bones where the marrow would be extracted, the situation was far more precarious.

Chris Seitz
AP Photo/Matt SlocumChris Seitz started 22 matches in 2010 for the Philadelphia Union.

"He dives on his hips. So much force is distributed through that area," said Richards, the Dallas trainer. "So many back muscles attach down there. If he dives too early, he could get a hip fracture. If he pushes it too soon, he could get a stress fracture. There's a lot to be concerned about."

Further complicating matters was the fact that, for a professional athlete, this was uncharted territory, at least for DKMS. The donor center, one of more than 50 affiliates of the National Marrow Donor Program, said Seitz is the first professional athlete in its registry to become a donor while his sport is in season.

With no previous information to rely on, Richards sought the input of various doctors, trainers and nutritionists to put together a plan for Seitz's recovery. The two of them met with the team that would do the procedure to learn the ins and outs and exactly what was going to happen. Richards then built a day-by-day rehab program that, if all went according to plan, they hoped would allow Seitz to return to the field for Dallas' season finale on Oct. 28.

They presented all their research to Hyndman. And then they listened.

"As Chris spoke, I wanted to cry," Hyndman said later. "You have people who won't even donate blood. They drive right by the blood bank. And here's this guy willing to get on an airplane and go through an elective surgery to try and save the life of someone he doesn't even know. And it might not even work.

"Of course I wanted to do everything I could to make this happen."

But at the same time, Hyndman knew better than to make an emotional decision without talking to ownership. And he knew the team would need to find a capable replacement before it could green-light Seitz's departure.

"When I said that, you could see the hesitation on [Seitz's] part," Hyndman said. "He made this eye gesture as if to say, 'You mean this might not work?' You could see in his face how much he wanted to do this."

Although Seitz was formally asking for permission, the reality is his mind was already made up. He realized he was putting his soccer career at risk. He knew he didn't have a guaranteed contract for 2013. He knew he would miss four of the team's 10 reserve matches while he was recovering. Adding to all of that, his fiance, Kate, had just found out she was pregnant with the couple's first child. Still, he was determined. He talked about the decision with Kate, his parents, his agent and even Uncle John. His mind was made up. Even if the team said no, he was going to do it.

"I would look back at it and shoot myself in the foot if I didn't do it," Seitz said. "I'd always have questions about myself, about who I am. It just would have bothered me. If someone had the chance to do it to help me or Kate, I'd beg them to do it. And it had just happened in my family. I saw it as my chance to give something back."

Because of his uncle, Seitz knew time was of the essence. As he waited for the team to get back to him with an answer, he went ahead and signed the contract agreeing to the procedure on his own. There was no turning back. Spelled out right there in the DKMS paperwork, Seitz said, was a note that if he changed his mind for any reason, his recipient -- who would begin chemotherapy shortly after the contract was signed -- likely would die.

Team president Doug Quinn, a cancer survivor himself, wanted this to work. But while Seitz already had agreed to the procedure, Dallas had yet to find his replacement.

It had reached out to the league to inquire about the pool of available keepers, but none of them was available. The team's third keeper, Mexican-born Richard Sanchez, was full of promise but was just 18 years old. And the team was in the middle of negotiations to lend him to an international club.

"The hill we were trying to climb just kept getting steeper and steeper," Hyndman said. "It's a silly thing to say. I mean, is a goalkeeper more valuable than a life? No. But you have to find a way to make it all work."

With the blessing of owner Clark Hunt, the team postponed discussions to send Sanchez on loan and promoted him to backup while Seitz was away. Before the Sept. 9 friendly against Club Leon, Dallas' technical director, Fernando Clavijo, told Seitz the good news.

"In the beginning," Seitz said, "I couldn't imagine them saying no. But still, it was a huge relief."

Seitz texted Andy Williams to tell him about the transplant. Williams showed the message to Marcia, who is doing well after undergoing stem cell transplants to combat her leukemia. She began to cry.

"Between the tears, she told me, 'Make sure you tell him that's awesome. Make sure you tell him thanks,'" Andy Williams said.


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n the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 11, Seitz stood in goal for Dallas in a reserve match against Colorado. In the 84th minute, Colorado's Jamie Smith bent a shot into the top left corner of the goal. But a leaping Seitz got his fingertips on the ball and poked it up over the crossbar for the save. He would post a shutout that night in a 1-0 Dallas win. As he walked off the field, he knew it likely would be his last game until the end of the season.

A week later, Seitz boarded a plane in Dallas and headed for the East Coast, where the transplant would take place. (Because of privacy rights, the exact location was not revealed). There he met his mother, Sharon, who had flown from California to support her son.

Shortly after 5 o'clock the next morning, Seitz arrived at the hospital, where doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists outlined details of the procedure one last time. It would take about an hour, they said. He would be on his stomach, unconscious, and wouldn't feel a thing.

Seitz said goodbye to his mom. Soon after, one of the anesthesiologists said she would give him something that would help him relax. It's the last thing he remembers. He later woke up in recovery. It was over.

As Seitz sat in recovery eating crushed ice and sipping apple juice, his nurses explained that everything had gone according to plan. The doctors had successfully poked the 64 holes in the bones in his lower back and harvested ample amounts of bone marrow to give to his recipient. Although the two incisions looked no larger than the tip of a pen cap, his body was exhausted. It was a struggle to move himself from the stretcher to a permanent hospital bed.

Chris Seitz
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images"I would look back at it and shoot myself in the foot if I didn't do it," Chris Seitz said of donating bone marrow. "I'd always have questions about myself, about who I am."

"I just felt so weak," he said. "It wasn't pain, it was just dealing with light-headedness and feeling so out of it."

That night, Seitz ate steak and lobster for dinner, a treat the hospital gives to its donors. His mom sat bedside as the two of them watched the film "16 Blocks." The next morning, Seitz woke up groggy and sore. The doctor told him to take a shower, remove his bandage and rinse out the two wounds until the blood stopped running. It took 15 minutes.

"It was disgusting," he said. "Just so much blood. They warned me not to be alarmed, but still, when you see that, you're going to be alarmed. It was terrible."

Throughout the day, Seitz couldn't help but think about his recipient. If everything went according to plan, this would be the greatest save of Seitz's life. But there was also a chance it wouldn't work. And Seitz wouldn't know the answer for months.

"I know everything my uncle went through," he said. "And you just wonder did the body accept it? Did it work? You just don't know anything."

Later that day, a slow and hobbled Seitz boarded a plane headed home to Dallas. Doctors gave him specific instructions for the coming days: Do nothing.


F

ive days after the procedure, Hyndman was walking through the Dallas training facility when his eyes spotted something that didn't make sense. It was Seitz.

"I asked him, 'What are you doing here?'" Hyndman said. "He was supposed to be at home."

But Seitz couldn't take it any longer. He needed to get out of the house. He needed to be with his team. Since the procedure, his days had been filled with nothing. No walking the puggles. No taking out the trash. No carrying groceries. He just sat there. Bored. Tired. And sore. He had all the time in the world to play "Halo," and all he wanted to do was get out of the house.

So, on the Tuesday after his surgery, Seitz drove himself to the Dallas training facility to see his team. After spotting Hyndman, he bumped into Richards, who was equally surprised that Seitz was there. Seitz asked whether he could walk a lap around the field.

"Fine," the trainer said. "Walk with me."

It wasn't pretty. Seitz could barely make it one lap.

"I'm pretty sure I looked like an old man," Seitz said. "And I felt like one, too."

Gradually, his energy came back and the plan to return to the field was put into place. It was carefully choreographed on a laminated sheet of paper on Richards' desk that read, "CHRIS SEITZ BONE MARROW REHAB PLAN."

It began with slow, short rides on a stationary bike and less than 10 pounds of upper-body weightlifting. It progressed to faster riding, then to treading and diving and eventually to swimming laps. The goal had always been to come back for the last match of the season, Oct. 28 versus Chivas USA. And everything appeared to be on track until last week, when Seitz began to feel discomfort in his lower back while riding the bike. Richards immediately took Seitz off the bike and kept him off it for several days.

Now the comeback appears to be unlikely. And with Dallas no longer in the playoff hunt, the team doesn't see a need to rush Seitz back to the field.

"It's disappointing," he said. "That's why you set goals. I want to be out there with my team. But I understand. If I rush back before my body is ready and something goes wrong … it doesn't make sense."

Without returning to the field, Seitz will head into the offseason under a cloud of uncertainty. Dallas holds an option on his contract for next year, and -- although Hyndman, Quinn and the other decision-makers in the organization rave about Seitz's character and how much he has improved as a player -- it's still a business. If Dallas doesn't retain Seitz, he would then be eligible for selection in the MLS re-entry draft in December.

"It's not like we don't know him and haven't seen him," Hyndmann said. "But his value as a person has gone off the charts. If it gets to a point where we are thinking, 'Do we bring back Chris, or do we not bring back Chris,' the one thing we will always say is his character and commitment is A-level."

Said Seitz: "I think I've had a good year. Every opportunity that they've given me, I've done well. I hope they want me back. I hope."

No matter what happens, Seitz said he wouldn't change a thing. He's uncomfortable with anyone labeling him as a hero and is interested in telling his story only in the hopes of prompting others to join the registry.

Seitz said not a day goes by when he doesn't think about his recipient. DKMS has told him he will have to wait two more months until he can learn anything about the person and whether the transplant works. In the meantime, the center added, if he wants to email words of encouragement to the patient, they will be passed along as long as he doesn't reveal any personal information about himself.

"I'd like to do that, but, at the same time, I wish I could do it with my team," Seitz said. "I wish everybody could sign something and let them know how we're all behind this."

That time will come, hopefully. For now, all Seitz can do is work on returning to the field as soon as possible. With no regrets.

"Missing these weeks has been really difficult for me, but it would have been a lot more difficult had I said no and had to deal with that guilt in the back of my mind," Seitz said. "This has been a huge struggle, but to be the person I want to be, I had to do this. I wouldn't change it for the world. And I hope that others would do the exact same thing."