Former Griz player, current coach soon to be a stem cell donor

Justin Green in 2004

Justin Green in 2004

Feb. 11, 2014

When you are a running back who rushed for more than 7,000 yards in an illustrious collegiate and high school career and played in the NFL for five seasons, many people may dub you a hero. A sports hero, anyway.

Former University of Montana star running back Justin Green, now an assistant coach at his alma mater, will soon become a different kind of a hero. He will be a hero in the game called life.

In the spring of 2013, almost the entire Grizzly football team and support personnel -- including Green -- had their blood drawn to see if they might be able to try to save someone's life via a bone marrow or a blood stem cell donation.

The idea to start a local bone marrow registry came from the UM Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and received the support of Griz head football coach Mick Delaney.

Now Green, 30, has found out he is a match for a nine-year-old girl. Late last week, he flew to Seattle and is at the Puget Sound Blood Center. He will undergo the "collection" process Wednesday (Feb. 12) morning.

The odds of being a match is in the 1-in-100,000 range. Yet Green is not the only donor from the Grizzly football program. This past December Ryan Burke, a freshman wide receiver from Billings, donated bone marrow. "After I signed up all people said was I've been on the registry for 20 years and never even got an email," Burke said in an interview in the local Missoulian newspaper.

"I had no idea (that I would be a match), and I had no idea that it would be this quick," said Green in an interview in his office in the UM athletic department last week. "When I got started I was thinking, What if you got a new job and moved? So I asked the lady. She kind of jokingly said, `We're attached to the Federal Government - so we'll find you.' "

The procedure that Green will have - a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation - is a serious commitment and a strenuous process.



The donation involves six to eight hours of apheresis, a procedure where blood is removed with a sterile needle from one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood stem cells. The remaining blood is returned through the other arm. For four days prior to the collection and on the first day of collection, the donor receives a daily injection of a synthetic protein called filgrastim that increases the blood stem cell count.

"I had no idea what might happen, because I was told that even though you are a match it doesn't mean necessarily that everything is going to work out," Green said. "They told me they'd have to do a bunch of more tests on my blood to make sure everything was OK. I did that about three weeks ago in Seattle. They actually flew me in that morning and I flew out that night.

"Since the recipient is a nine-year-old girl and she won't need that much (blood) - plus with my veins and the way the blood was coming out - (the procedure) should be about half the time that it normally takes," said Green, who rushed for 5,397 career yards as a prep star at University of San Diego High School in California. "Whatever time it takes works for me."

Green - a 6-0, 225-pounder when he played for the Griz and rushed for 1,784 yards in just two seasons - admits to a fear of needles since childhood. "I would much rather have a 350-pound man run after me than get a needle in my arm," he said. But, "to have the opportunity to potentially save somebody's life, to me it's kind of a no-brainer," he added.

Because of confidentially requirements, Green may never find out who the recipient is or how she fares.

"I just know that she's a nine-year-old girl who lives overseas," Green said. "They feel that it's better to not know much about her, because they don't want you to be highly invested."

If all goes well, he may have a chance to meet her - in a year or longer. "They do that in order to protect me as well," he said.

Green and his wife Meghan have a four-year-old daughter, Giana (pronounced gee-ah-nuh). The fact that his donation will go to a girl just a few years older than her is not lost on him.

"My wife understands, and when Giana is old enough to understand she'll be OK with the five days that I am gone (for the collection process)," Green said.

"My family's my number one thing," Green said. "I would hope someone would do the same thing for my daughter if I wasn't a match for her. More than anything else, I feel very fortunate to be able to do this.

"Who really thinks that they're going to donate to somebody? Now, we've had two (donors from the Griz football team). It's very unique and it's very cool."

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