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USF's Biggest Fan -- Jeff Wagner / Finish Strong


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USF fan will be watching tonight's game from hospital room

Mike Szvetitz  / A View From The Lazy Boy

September 8, 2007

 

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Tonight, Jordan-Hare Stadium will feel empty.

It won’t really be, but it’ll just feel that way.

Sure, there will be more than 87,000 screaming fans watching Auburn play the University

of South Florida.

The eagle will fly. The bands will play. The teams will run out onto the field. It’ll seem like a normal college football game on the Plains.

But it won’t be. It can’t be.

Jeff Wagner won’t be there. Oh, he wants to be. Really, he does. He would give all the blood in his body to be. But he just can’t.

The doctors won’t let him.

His family won’t let him.

Leukemia won’t let him.

And it stinks. If anyone should be in Jordan-Hare watching Auburn and USF, it should be Jeff Wagner. It has to be Jeff Wagner.

After all, he’s South Florida’s biggest fan.

As a graduate of the university, 10 years before it got a football team, Jeff Wagner has been the Bulls biggest supporter.

He has been an ambassador for USF since moving down from Cleveland, Tenn., to play tennis for the Bulls in the early 80s.

He was on the committee to hire the school’s first - and only - coach.

He’s a season-ticket holder. He travels to all the team’s games.

He’s got Jim Leavitt, USF’s head coach, on speed dial.

Jeff is two horns shy from being the actual mascot.

"I bleed green and gold,"

he said.

Blood is thicker ...

That same green and gold blood has had its battles.

In April of 2003, Wagner was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). After a Rose Bowl-like bout with the disease, Wagner was victorious. The cancer was gone.

He was healthy. Real healthy. Triathlon-participating healthy.

But then, three and a half years later, the cancer wanted a rematch.

But this time it wasn’t ALL. It was AML - acute myeloid leukemia.

The differences are subtle but severe. Wagner could tell you all about it. But he sums it up like this: "It’s like walking out on the field to play LSU, and then all of a sudden, the Arkansas Razorbacks show up.

"It’s not fair. You plan for one thing, and then you have to face another. I’ve already beat this opponent, then they call you back and say you’ve got to play this game again. And, oh yeah, the team is different."

This time, this game, it’s a lot tougher. The base offense wasn’t working. Instead of just chemotherapy and radiation, Wagner needed something more. He needed a bone marrow transplant.

A Hail Mary.

Prayers and footballs alike started to go up in May of this year.

And they connected.

On Aug. 28, Wagner’s bone marrow transplant - performed at the Moffitt Cancer Center on the campus of USF (a home game) - went well. His donor, who he doesn’t know, was a 10-out-of-12 match. Pretty good odds.

Only a sibling can be a perfect match. Jeff’s only sister wasn’t.

But, this one at least gives him better than a puncher’s chance.

About the same odds as South Florida has to beat Auburn.

"We have the chance to beat Auburn," Wagner said. "I really believe it. We all believe it."

Remember, Jeff Wagner bleeds green and gold.

The same blood that has already beat cancer once.

The same blood that will be boiling tonight as his team takes on Auburn.

You gotta believe.

Bigger than football

Jeff Wagner is competitive. He’s been playing sports his whole life. He loves the competition. He loves the atmosphere.

He loves the passion. He really loves South Florida.

And that’s why it’s killing him - missing the game, not the cancer - not to be in Auburn this weekend.

He’s been dreaming of this moment for five years now. Since he met his wife, Kim. Since he found out she and her family were diehard Auburn fans.

He’s circled this game on his calender long before Leavitt or any of the Bulls.

He wanted this game.

"Ever since we found out they were going to be playing, we’ve made plans to be there," Wagner said. "Up until early May, we were ready to go."

But then the cancer came back.

Unbelievable.

Instead of tasting the lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs, watching Tiger Walk and rooting for his alma mater for the first time in Jordan-Hare, Jeff Wagner will be isolated in his hospital room, trying to stay awake long enough to watch the game.

See, transplant surgery takes a lot out of you. Doctors estimate he’ll sleep 16-18 hours a day. Oh, and then there’s the pain. Lots of pain.

And the needles. And the tests. And more needles. And more tests. And pain. And fatigue.

"I’m just useless in a production environment," Wagner told me just two days before his transplant. "I’m a walking pin cushion right now.

"It’s tough."

It did, however, get a lot easier.

Wagner has already had visits from Leavitt, USF athletics director and NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, as well as spiritual advisor RV Brown - who worked with Auburn team chaplin Chette Williams during the Tigers’ 2004 undefeated season.

He’s a local celebrity at Moffitt.

Then he received a letter. Three weeks before his surgery, Wagner opened up a piece of mail with an Auburn University insignia on it.

Here’s a snippet of what it said:

While I know that you were looking forward to being in Auburn on September 8 when your University of South Florida takes on the Tigers, I’m sure you realize that you are engaged in something much more important than a football game.

I know that you will be pulling for South Florida that night, but I hope you know that we will all be pulling for you to come through this with a win ...

Sincerely,

Tommy Tuberville

"I got the letter and had really no idea what it was," Wagner said, trying to fight back his emotions. "And by the end of the first paragraph, I was struggling. I was holding back tears.

"It was moving. It meant a lot to me the Coach Tuberville would take the time to send that letter. It was special."

Winning is everything

Jeff Wagner wants South Florida to pull the upset.

But he won’t be upset if it doesn’t happen.

He’s just thankful he’ll get to see it. Even if it is on TV and not from the stands.

He’s always thankful. His faith and his family and friends keep him that way.

He asks very little and gives all of himself, says his father-in-law Larry Lee, who lives in Opelika.

"Jeff is a great guy," Lee said. "He’s always with a smile on his face. Very upbeat, (has a) strong faith and is always doing for others.

"Since getting leukemia, he has been very involved in raising money to battle this disease."

That’s where the triathlons come in. Jeff and his wife have raised money through the "Team in Training" triathlon for cancer research and development.

He’s got a Web site www.wagnerlee.com where you can track his progress, but more importantly, get involved in being a bone-marrow donor.

"The biggest thing for me is to educate people in getting involved in saving a life," he said. "Consider giving the gift of life. And chances are, you’ll never get called, but if you do, you become the new best friend of that person who needs you.

"You have a chance to save their life. There’s nothing better than that."

He also wants you to know something else: He’s not giving up.

"Never give up," Jeff said. "I’m never going to give up. I want to get up on my triathlon bike and ride. I want to go out there and coach my Big Brother football team.

"I want out and watch South Florida football."

He believes. Always believes.

After all, he bleeds green and gold.

MIKE SZVETITZ is sports editor of the

Opelika-Auburn News. He may be reached

at mszvetitz@oanow.com or 737-2513.

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Great Story.

See Greg's blog for more.

picture196.jpg

Go Bulls!

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good article...hope he pulls through.

makes you put the whole 'missing a game because it changed to noon kickoff' in perspective.

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From a cancer center, inspiration for USF

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

Published September 12, 2007

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TAMPA - For all the celebration in the visiting locker room at Jordan-Hare Stadium, for all the fans who traveled to Alabama for USF's overtime upset of Auburn on Saturday night, the Bulls' win might have been most special in a normally quiet hospital room at the Moffitt Cancer Center on USF's campus.

"We probably kept a few patients awake," said Jeff Wagner, a 44-year-old USF graduate. "It was just unbelievable."

Wagner couldn't cheer Saturday, his voice gone as a side effect of a bone-marrow transplant he had two weeks ago to help his battle against acute myeloid leukemia. He made up for it by clapping, and his actions already had impacted the game.

When Wagner was diagnosed in May - he had beaten one round of leukemia in 2003, regaining his health enough to compete in triathlons - he came up with his BMAGs: "big, monstrous, audacious goals," including a bone-marrow drive, and helping with a Big Brother volunteer program.

His third goal was helping USF football, which he'd loved before it even existed. He arranged for coach Jim Leavitt to meet with R.V. Brown, a Tampa minister whose work as a motivational speaker has coincided with an amazing run of championships and success.

Brown spoke to the Bucs under Tony Dungy, to Florida before its national title last fall, even to Appalachian State, where he traveled last week to celebrate the team's upset of Michigan. Thanks to Wagner, Brown has been working with USF this season.

Wagner has shown himself to be quite the motivator, sending frequent notes to Leavitt - "locker-room material, if you'd like," he says, especially his new mantra: "FINISH STRONG."

The two words carried the Bulls through adversity Saturday night, and players repeated them in their celebration. Wagner was the first person Leavitt mentioned in his postgame comments.

Wagner also helped bring two opponents close together, sharing with Leavitt a letter that Auburn coach Tommy Tubervillesent him; Wagner's wife, Kim, is from Alabama, and her parents are Auburn graduates.

"I'm sure you realize that you are engaged in something much more important than a football game," the coach wrote. "I know that you will be pulling for South Florida that night, but I hope you know that we will all be pulling for you to come through this with a win."

Leavitt talked to his players about Wagner on Friday night, read them Tuberville's letter, and Wagner's words stuck with them.

"It motivated us a little more," cornerback Trae Williams said. "It made us keep fighting, so when we went to overtime, we just said, 'Finish strong.'"

Wagner still didn't have his voice Sunday when Leavitt called him, telling him how much he appreciated what he had done. He told Wagner it was now his turn to finish strong. He could be released from Moffitt by Monday, but with bone-marrow transplants, the key time frame is the first 100 days, which require near-constant supervision.

Wagner sold his USF season tickets, buying a high-def TV so he can watch the Bulls from home. His 100 days will finish in December, allowing him to attend a bowl game if USF can continue its strong play. Consider his Bulls very motivated to make that happen.

"Saturday made me feel so good to be part of this program," he said. "Prayers were answered."

To learn more about Wagner or send him a message, visit his Web site at wagnerlee.com.

THIS AND THAT: As if it weren't enough that USF got a $650,000 check from Auburn for playing Saturday's game, here's another fiscal reward for USF's big win. Because the Bulls' Sept. 22 game against North Carolina will now be on ESPN or ESPN2, USF will get an appearance-fee check for $101,911 from the Big East for getting a nonconference game on national telecast. ... A squad of USF soccer alumni will play an exhibition against former Tampa Bay Rowdies players at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, with USF's men's team facing American at 7. ... Off to a 5-1 start, the volleyball team has its home opener at 7 p.m. Thursday against Central Florida. The first 200 fans get free T-shirts.

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and at 813 226-3346.

[Last modified September 12, 2007, 10:20:13]

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I will have this on a sign come the UNC game... it'll be in bold letters!

Go Bulls!

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WOW!  Talk about motivation.  Let us hope that Wagner can finish as strong as he is hoping our Bulls will!

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WOW!  Talk about motivation.  Let us hope that Wagner can finish as strong as he is hoping our Bulls will!

Amen to that
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Great story.  It would be awesome to have green bracelets made with the iconic U and FINISH STRONG as a fundraiser for some organization at Moffitt.  I bet 5,000 to 10,000 could be sold at $2 the rest of this year on campus and at games.

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