Marrow-donor drive gets personal for Central High football coach Justin Garza

The Fresno BeeJuly 12, 2014 

Central High football coach Justin Garza is fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma in one of the best ways he knows how, spurring a local drive to get people to sign up for the national bone-marrow donor registry.

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Central High football coach Justin Garza has followed a simple credo he heard while facing a third bout with cancer: "Live your life for something greater than yourself."

The 38-year-old husband and father of one with another child on the way learned in June that he has come out of remission for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

This coming roughly a year after a stem-cell transplant he hoped would prevent a relapse of the disease he first fought in 2011 while coaching at Sunnyside and then again in 2012 after his first season at Central.

Garza's best option for a cure is a bone-marrow transplant. But he's still waiting for a donor match nearly two months after being placed on the national registry.

"For people like myself, it comes down to very few options. One of my few is to find a donor," Garza said. "And I'm not the only one."

Rather than waiting idly for a match that could save his life, Garza has decided to do all he can to help himself and others in similar situations.

He's partnered with bethematch.org and the Central Valley Blood Center for an Aug. 29 bone marrow drive. It will be 5-9 p.m. at Deran Koligian Stadium, the night of the Grizzlies' opener against Liberty-Brentwood.

While the chance of finding a local match is unlikely, Garza said he hopes the drive will raise donor awareness, particularly in the Hispanic community.

According to Be The Match -- the global leader in bone-marrow transplantation -- 10% of the roughly 10.5 million people in the national registry are Hispanic. And only one in every 500 people who get tested turn out to be a match.

"My job as a coach is to get people where they wouldn't take themselves," Garza said. "And I want to get people to take themselves to get samples for bone marrow. I think everyone has the opportunity to help save someone's life."

Supporters have started a Facebook page (bethematch4justin) and Twitter handle (@bethematch4J) to help the coach reach his goal of drawing 1,000 donors to the drive.

"The part I've been overwhelmed by is the people who have come out of the woodwork to help," Garza said. "People have reached out who I haven't seen or talked to in 20 years."

One of the people who is trying to help is Buchanan Athletic Director James Gambrell, who hired Garza when he was at Central.

Gambrell has made tentative plans for Buchanan to host a bone-marrow drive before its Aug. 28 home opener against Edison.

Garza said there also is talk of drives in Reedley, where he had his first head coaching gig, in westside communities such as Firebaugh and Mendota and even as far as Sacramento.

"Justin Garza is a good friend and as good a person as you can meet," Gambrell said. "So if there is anything I can do or the Buchanan community can do, they we'd love to do it. Justin is a very special person."

Garza said he has a nine-week window to find a bone-marrow match.

If one is found in time, he'll have surgery and be away from the Grizzlies football program for four months. If not, he'll explore clinical trials or other alternative cures. Garza plans on coaching until deciding on a treatment option.

Myles Bacon, a former Reedley High quarterback and head coach, would take over in Garza's absence.

"I'm not the linchpin of anything, it's a team and a community from the players to the coaches and administration to the parents," Garza said. "Everyone puts their two cents in. It's really neat to see how many people are helping because they all know at any give point, I could be gone."


 

HOW TO HELP

What: Bone marrow drive

Aug. 29: 5-9 p.m. at Central High's Koligian Stadium

Details: centralgrizzliesfootball.com or bethematch.org

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6103, nickg@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6103.

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