Penn football players Anthony Lotti and Sam Philippi walked into a conference room. Dressed in red and blue polos, they sat down and expected to give interviews about their donations of bone marrow to cancer patients.
On the screen appeared NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The players’ jaws dropped. Their mouths opened wide. Neither could say a word while staring at the screen.
“You weren’t expecting me?” Goodell said in the video.
“I’m not here to interview you guys."
The commissioner gave each of the players two tickets to Super Bowl LIV in Miami for donating bone marrow to leukemia patients. He called them unselfish for doing something special.
“It was literally the last thing I would have ever expected to see in that room that day,” Philippi said.
“Anybody that’s a football fan knows that Roger Goodell is the face of football,” Lotti added. “You see him face-to-face with you, and you really don’t know what to say.”
Most of Penn’s football players sign up in their freshman seasons to donate through Be the Match, a national donor registry designed to help patients with blood cancers.
The chances of being a match are 1 in 300, or 0.3%. Lotti, a Freehold, N.J., native, and Philippi, from Trabuco Canyon, Calif., are two of five football players at Penn who have been matches in the 12 years that Penn has been associated with the program.
“I just gave my DNA and it was kind of gone with the wind, and I never really thought about it after that,” Lotti said.
Former Villanova football coach Andy Talley had placed an emphasis on raising awareness about the need for marrow donors. More than 100 college football programs participated this season.
Penn’s football roster lists 110 players. Only Lotti, a junior who was forced to retire after suffering nerve damage in his neck and is serving as a team manager, and Philippi, a fifth-year senior defensive back, have been identified as matches.
In December 2016, Philippi headed to Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia. He never thought hard about the impact he was about to make. He just knew it was the right thing.
Philippi’s process wasn’t as difficult as Lotti’s. He didn’t need surgery. He had IVs in both his arms, and the blood was circulated through a machine and spun back into him.
Philippi was low on energy afterward. It was similar to having flu symptoms, but he was back to normal in a week.
The biggest difficulty for Philippi was the timing. It was finals week at Penn, so he had to quickly shift his focus back to school after the donation.
“I felt I was doing a small part to be able to do this,” Philippi said. “It’s just God putting me in that situation to help someone out.”
Lotti got the call to donate in April. He reached out to Philippi for advice, but his procedure was different.
He underwent further blood tests to confirm that he was a match, and on July 24, Lotti underwent a three-hour surgery at Hackensack Medical Center in North Jersey.
Lotti was sore after the procedure. He spent about a week in bed and couldn’t walk gracefully. He recovered in about two weeks.
“I got that call, and it was life-changing for me,” Lotti said. “I was very happy and blessed to get that call.”
One year after the transplant is complete, the players are allowed to make contact with the patients if both parties agree to it. Lotti learned that he was helping a 37-year-old mother with leukemia, and Philippi assisted a 31-year-old man with leukemia.
Philippi hasn’t been able to reach out to the person to whom he donated, but he has been told that the patient is doing well. Lotti will have to wait until July 2020, but he plans on reaching out when he’s able.
Besides just wanting to do a good deed, both players had motivational factors. Each had a close relative who dealt with breast cancer. Lotti lost a grandmother to the disease about 11 years ago, and Philippi’s mother is a nine-year survivor.
“It was something that really hit home for me,” Philippi said. “My mom has been an inspiration through it all. Thinking of her in that situation really helped me make a quick decision and never hesitate about it.”
Phillipi is a Green Bay Packers fan. If Aaron Rodgers and his crew can get to the Super Bowl, it would make the experience even more enjoyable for him. Philippi plans to take his younger brother with him for his birthday.
Lotti is a fan of the Giants, but he could care less who gets there. The experience itself is enough.
And besides, what college kid wouldn’t like to take a break from Philly’s cold weather in February to head to South Beach?