Robert Gawlas felt a little funny, called out to the field pregame by his Penn coach Al Bagnoli to meet the opposing coach, Villanova’s Andy Talley.
This was almost a decade back. Gawlas, then a senior tight end for the Quakers, had hurt his knee, wasn’t playing. Gawlas remembers Talley shaking his hand, saying, “I want to give you a hug.”
Now an attorney in Wilkes-Barre, Gawlas remembers how he thought at the time that his Penn teammates must have been wondering, “What is this guy doing?”
Well, Gawlas and Talley were actually on the same team, a remarkable one.
Tuesday night in Las Vegas, Talley will be inducted into the College Hall of Fame, the first representative from Villanova. His 2020 selection, pandemic-delayed for official induction, speaks to his 258 career victories, including 230 at Villanova. The man who brought football back to Villanova and kept on going, winning an NCAA FCS national title in 2009.
That’s enough to honor one career … but the milestones aren’t close to the most important lifetime numbers for Talley. His big one is officially at 816 and counting.
Those are the matches that, according to his foundation’s executive director, now can be credited to a drive Talley began just with his own Villanova team. By now, more than 119,000 people have been added to a registry through the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation and its Get in the Game Foundation, with those 816 matching up and donating bone marrow or stem cells, to extend or save a life.
“Coach has done an amazing job, using his network — what we call his black book,” said Krista Ross, executive director of the foundation. “He’s always hustling. … He sees Chip Kelly [now UCLA’s coach, at an event], ‘Hey, Chip, I’m coming for you.’ Sure enough, UCLA did a big drive.”
A star Villanova player missed a playoff game after donating bone marrow. A football player at another school donated twice. A student trainer at Temple, Mike Burkeitt, now a trainer at Penn, donated last year, a perfect match seven or eight years after he donated.
“When we first started, they actually drew blood,” Talley said. “You had all these football players drop to the floor. We had two or three go down every time. Then we went to the cheek swab.”
The stories go on, because lives go on.
“I was at the end of the road, had six months,” said Holly Easley, talking on the phone from Hereford, Texas.
Her form of leukemia, Myelodysplastic syndrome, looked like a death sentence without getting a stem-cell transplant. No match in her family. A national registry came up with one.
“March 24, of 2011, at straight-up noon,” Easley said of her transplant.
Of her donor, she said, “The only thing they could tell me, he was a 19-year-old male and he was in the United States.”
“When I was a freshman, I did the cheek swab,” Gawlas said. “About a year later, to the date, February of 2011, I was told I was a potential match for a 50-something woman with cancer. That’s all they could tell me. I think I was 1-in-7 of being an actual match. After further testing, they found I was the perfect match.”
“I was overcome,” Easley said of finding out a potential match was a perfect match. “I had another chance.”
She had to wait a year to find out the name of her donor. Both sides had to agree they wanted to share their name. Robert got Holly’s first, Googled her, read her blog about her whole ordeal.
“By the time we talked, he knew everything about me,” Easley said.
“My now-wife and I went to Texas in 2014, visited her,” Gawlas said “She came to my wedding. She was also at my brother’s wedding. We try to see each other every year.”
Easley said she didn’t know anything about the Talley connection until three or four years after the donation. She was at a hospital in Houston for a follow-up, went to dinner afterward with her husband. “After dinner, we went into the bar to have a nightcap,” she said.
They got to talking to this man who was visiting from Philadelphia. As they shared stories, Holly told about her donor, a Penn football player.
“The man said he bet [Gawlas] got into the registry through the Get in the Game program,” Easley said. “He explained he was a friend of Coach Talley.”
On the phone, Gawlas confirmed it for her.
“I wrote Coach Talley — I never knew I had him to thank,” Easley said.
Last month, Villanova had a celebration for Talley in advance of his Hall of Fame induction. Easley got there. Gawlas got there. The three went to the court at the Finneran Pavilion and took a photo together.
“My 2 lifesavers!!!!!” Easley texted with the photo, adding a heart emoji.
“She went for one of those hereditary tests, to find out her lineage,” Talley said of Easley. “Well, they had her listed as a male.”
She tried again, confirmed male.
“That blood test assumed she was him,” Talley said. “It was all her donor’s lineage.”
“If she committed a crime down in Texas, I would be on the hook for it,” Gawlas said.
Asked about his football career at Penn, Gawlas said, “It was mostly injuries. I could show you the scars.”
Krista Ross said the foundation is adding other sports, widening out. While Talley’s black book saved lives, a lot of the names in it have joined Talley in retirement.
“I always say, he’s spunky and spicy but he’s 78,” Ross said. “I’ve got to make sure this lasts forever.”
Talley never (ever) stopped working it. The last game of his career was a close playoff loss at South Dakota State, which happens to be Villanova’s FCS quarterfinal opponent this weekend.
“I cornered the coach afterward,” Talley said. “A sterling individual. I grabbed him after the game. ‘Congratulations, but you owe me.’”
What did that mean?
“You’re going on to the next game,” Talley remembers saying. “Now you need to do a bone marrow drive for me. I explained it. The next year, they did 400 people at the drive. His offensive coordinator is on my board now.”
Talley’s squad includes a woman who had one grandchild when she was diagnosed with leukemia. ”I’m 66 years old, born and raised in the panhandle,’’ Easley said. “Now I’m enjoying grandkids. I have 10 of them.”
One other thing …
“I’m a Villanova fan,” Easley said, another late addition to her DNA.
So if those Penn players really were wondering why Robert Gawlas was hugging the opposing coach out there on the field, here’s their answer. They can call down to the Texas panhandle for confirmation.
“He won a lot of games,” Gawlas said. “But his legacy is going to be this.”