Seven years and a time zone ago, Markell Staffieri met a boy who waged a huge battle to live. It changed the former BYU linebacker's life.
Staffieri, now a wealth management consultant in San Diego, continues to keep in touch with Andrew Alley, who somehow, some way has stayed alive after his diagnosis with brain stem cancer. Even today, Alley's courage has inspired Staffieri, elevated his faith and propelled him to be a more caring, charitable and grateful human being.
For this, and many other reasons, Staffieri will hop on a bike and spend three days riding from Provo to the Cougars' Boise State football game later this month. "It's just something I feel compelled to do for a good cause," he said on Sunday.
The ride is called the Hero Ride, part of the Thursday's Hero program and the Bronco and Holly Mendenhall Foundation in which BYU's football team hosts a family or individual in need. The program has done so since 2005, when Andrew Alley became the first such person welcomed to a practice, team meetings, team meal and game.
Seven years ago Mendenhall received a letter from Matt Alley, a BYU fan, that explained his son had been diagnosed with brain stem cancer and was not expected to live more than a year. Alley respectfully requested BYU somehow find a way to get Andrew, a huge Cougar fan, to a game. Matt wrote that it would make a big difference in Andrew's days filled with sickness and treatments.
"Coach Mendenhall read the letter to the team and asked us what could we do to help," said Staffieri. "We ended up inviting him to our team meeting, practice, dinner, hosted him in a huddle after practice, presented him with gear and to the game. Andrew was the first Thursday Hero and to date, every Thursday in season since, they've done this and there have been 90 of them."
The goal, said Staffieri, is to ease suffering and make a difference. "It's become a big deal for the team. The players really get into it when the team hosts these heroes. It's a way to give back."
Staffieri is trying to key an effort to remember Thursday Heroes with this Hero Ride on Sept. 17. So far 20 of the 90 hero families will participate, either to bike or be pushed or pulled from LaVell Edwards Stadium up University Avenue to kick off the event with Holly Mendenhall and her three sons.
Other hero families will join the group at the 125-mile first-day mark in Brigham City. From there, other heroes will join and ride to the Golden Spike Monument. Still other heroes will join the group there and ride towards the second-night stop in Burley, Idaho, 150 miles away. The next leg, Day 3, is to Glenn's Ferry 125 miles from Burley. The fourth day is a final stretch of 70 miles to Boise.
So far, 18 people have committed to ride all 460 miles to Boise. About 30 former players have committed to ride part of the way. Along with Staffieri, eight former players will ride all the way to Boise. This group includes Brett Denney, Kyle Tew, Eddie Kehl, Joe Semanoff, Roy Ward and a former soccer player, Brock Blake.
"When we sent out the email to alumni inviting them on the ride, I had four calls within two hours," said Staffieri. "I was very impressed."
Anyone interested in the ride can call Cort Trejo at the BYU football office (801-422-2916).
The ride itself will raise money for the Thursday Heroes program where people apply and if accepted, can use resources for home renovations, car repairs, medical equipment or educational pursuits.
"But this is more about showing there is more to football than just playing games. This is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, and that's an important thing because of many of the negative headlines our sport receives these days," said Staffieri.
Said the former linebacker, whose wife is expecting their third child in December, "Holly Mendenhall has called Boise State's football staff and asked if they have a Bronco fan that could be a Thursday Hero that both teams could honor on game day. She's also asked if there are Boise State football alumni who might want to meet us on the way and bike into town with us."
So far, 20 BYU alumni in the Boise area have signed up and Staffieri said some Boise State alumni have also accepted the challenge and have signed up to ride the last leg.
"You know, the best part of this?" asked Staffieri. "It's that Andrew is still with us. He will be on this ride. He's been cancer-free the past few years and that is a miracle.
"Of all the people I met, of all the things I ever did in college, meeting Andrew, seeing him fight, experiencing his courage, is the best thing that ever happened to me as a BYU football player."
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In 2006, the Holly and Bronco Mendenhall Foundation started the Thursday's Heroes program at BYU. Its purpose is to honor children and families who face significant life challenges.
Thursday's Heroes are hosted at a Thursday football practice prior to every game. The hero is presented with gifts and autographed memorabilia as a token of strength in adversity and joins the team for a meal and is honored at a home game. A charitable fund is established to help the family's needs.