Rusty Plemons was finishing his junior year of high school when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. His treatment plan included a bone marrow transplant, which is when William & Mary offensive lineman Mark Williamson stepped in with the necessary donation. Now in recovery, Plemons finally was able to meet the man who saved his life.
Plemons received his diagnosis in 2016—the same summer Williamson was preparing for his freshman year. Williamson got a call from Be the Match, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people with life-threatening illnesses to potential bone marrow donors that he had joined with his teammates earlier in the year as part of a tradition that began at William & Mary in 1991. They informed him that he might be a match for an 18-year-old boy with leukemia.
Williamson knew he would have to forfeit his first season playing football at his new school, but he didn’t care.
“I have two parents with huge hearts, and I knew where the coaching staff’s hearts lied,” Williamson told The Washington Post. “It was a very big privilege to be able to say yes, right then and there. I didn’t have to think about it or weigh my options.”
Williamson’s donation brought hope to Plemons and his family.
“When I first got diagnosed, I was really scared,” Plemons said. “You automatically think it’s a death sentence, and it very well could’ve been if Mark wouldn’t have donated.”
“To watch him go through that was absolutely heartbreaking for me,” Plemons’ mom Brandie Cobb added. “We had a lot of really deep conversations because there were possibilities either way and the hospital didn’t hide the bad possibilities. I never thought I would be doing a living will with my 18-year-old child. He’s just awesome. I’ve learned about how strong he can actually be, that’s for sure.”
Williamson played in one game before undergoing surgery to harvest his bone marrow. He returned to practice a few weeks later but sat out for the season. When he heard news that Plemons’ transplant had been successful and Plemons was doing well enough to spend Thanksgiving at home, Williamson was thrilled.
“That made it all worthwhile,” Williamson said. “That was very powerful for me.”
Plemons’ mother reported that her son has had a few setbacks and hospitalizations over the past three years but is now producing normal red blood cells and is off all medications. He is about to start work as a package handler at UPS and is “the healthiest he’s ever been.”
While confidentiality policies prevent patients and donors from getting in touch within the first year, Be the Match got the two connected about six months ago. They chatted via Facebook Messenger and text, and Williamson invited Plemons to a football game. Plemons and his mother took the eight-hour trip to William & Mary where Plemons was greeted by Williamson on the field. The two embraced, and Plemons was presented with a special jersey with both his name and Williamson’s name on the back.
“It’s one of those experiences in life that you can’t put into words. You kind of just have to feel it. Because of the attention on this Be the Match game, I hope there are a lot more people in the world that get to experience this feeling,” Williamson said.
“I’m not one to go out in crowds and stuff, but I think of all the people who might sign up because of this,” he said. “So many people could be a 10 out of 10 match. I’m hoping it just blows up to where everyone signs up. I didn’t know anything about it until I was diagnosed, and now I’m really grateful for it. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for him.”