Wearing the No. 44 jersey, Andrew Smith was a key contributor to the most successful period in Butler University basketball history. From 2010 to 2013, the 6-11 center helped the Bulldogs earn three NCAA tournament bids and back-to-back appearances in the national championship game.
Now Project 44, initiated in Smith’s honor, seeks to help keep others from suffering the same fate as the former Butler player, who died Jan. 12, 2016, at age 25 following a two-year battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and then leukemia.
Saving 44 lives is the goal of Project 44 and Butler’s partnership with Be The Match, the world’s leading nonprofit organization focused on saving lives through marrow and cord blood transplantation. Since the odds are 430-1 that a donor will be a match, reaching that goal means signing up 18,920 people to the registry in honor of Smith.
“In collegiate athletics, we have the opportunity to shape young people’s lives,” Butler University Athletics Director Barry Collier said when the partnership was announced in spring 2016. “Through this partnership, we now have the opportunity to save lives, as well.”
Every year, more than 14,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, and their best or only hope of a cure is a transplant from an unrelated adult donor or umbilical cord blood unit.
Smith’s wife, Samantha, knows the statistics all too well.
“We have personally sat in those doctor’s office chairs and had those really hard conversations, and it’s the absolute worst,” she says. “We always said, if we would lessen one person’s heartbreak, then we would do it in a heartbeat. Cancer is just so vicious. It’s so nasty and doesn’t care about how old you are or where you are in life.”
The Smiths, both devout Christians, were high school sweethearts at Covenant Christian in Indianapolis and married a week after Andrew’s college graduation. Samantha has chronicled the highs and lows of the past couple of years in a blog at kickingcancerwiththesmiths.org.
Since Smith’s diagnosis, Butler has hosted two bone marrow registry/blood drives at storied Hinkle Fieldhouse. Andrew was by Samantha’s side for the first in September 2015. A year later, it was held in memory of him.
Former Bulldogs teammate Kellen Dunham was one of many who signed up at the first event. Dunham and Smith were roommates on the road for one season.
“With Andrew’s faith, he understood that our bodies are not our own, but that we were bought at a price through the blood of Jesus Christ,” says Dunham, a guard who joined the team as a freshman when Smith was a senior. “It was important for Andrew as well as myself to use our bodies to maybe help someone else in God’s kingdom for his glory.”
Be The Match facilitates more marrow and cord blood transplants every year, including nearly 6,400 transplants in 2015, for a total of 74,000 transplants since 1987.
Helping Smith’s legacy live on through the partnership with Butler means much to the organization, says Mary Halet, Be The Match’s director of donor services.
“The fact is that young men are especially needed on the registry to help us continue our mission to save lives through transplant,” Halet says. “We’re committed to keep fighting in honor of No. 44.”
Project 44 isn’t the only way Smith’s legacy lives on. For what would have been Andrew’s 26th birthday on Sept. 9, Samantha asked that people do “a random act of kindness to honor Andrew and his lasting impact on people.” Hundreds of people used the #Smith26 hashtag and shared their good deeds from as far away as Australia, she says.
“I’m Andrew’s wife, so I knew his heart the very best. And his heart was truly always about helping other people,” Samantha says, noting her husband would cringe knowing he was the center of attention. “This is the very best way to honor him and the best way that I think would be OK with him because it’s still all about helping others and doing something really important.”
Register for the program at https://join.bethematch.org/andrew1