NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty, current NFL football stars who once played for Rutgers, hosted a blood drive at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) on February 20.
The “Tackle Sickle Cell” blood drive was organized in collaboration with the twins and the Embrace Kids Foundation, a non-profit that helps children with cancer and blood disorders.
Glenn Jenkins, the Executive Director of the Embrace Kids Foundation, expressed his appreciation for the McCourtys' dedication to helping those fighting the sickle cell disease.
According to Jenkins, the annual blood drive has grown each year.
"Embrace Kids Foundation has been in operation for 25 years," said Jenkins. "This is the 4th year of the Tackle Sickle Cell Blood Drive, with the McCourty twins... It’s good to be working on the sickle cell cause with NFL players who are upstanding.
Sickle cell is a genetic disease that causes the body to produce abnormal blood cells.
The disease can be very painful, causes one’s life span to be shorter, and usually requires blood transfusions as part of treatment.
It’s estimated that almost 80% of those suffering from sickle cell disease are African-American.
There is a higher chance for those who need blood, to be a match for someone with the same racial background.
Jason McCourty, who plays for the Tennessee Titans, expressed the importance of having a diverse population of blood donors.
“The biggest thing with us getting behind this blood drive, is trying to get a more diverse attendance... getting more minorities out giving blood. I think it’s huge and it helps a lot,” explained Jason.
“This is the fourth year that we’ve done it. Hopefully we can continue to get the number up.”
The twins plan on continuing their passionate work to promote sickle cell awareness.
Devin, who plays for the New England Patriots, is encouraged by his work in the fight against sickle cell.
“It’s inspiring to know you’re doing something that’s working, and that it’s doing good things for good people. So we’ll continue to do that.”
The twin’s family has a history of sickle cell. Their aunt and uncle have the disease, and their father, who passed away when the twins were younger, carried the sickle cell trait.
Being affected by sickle cell from an early age, Devin and Jason were determined to use their football fame to help those suffering from it.
Devin recalls getting tested for the disease at an early age.
“When we were around five, my mom had to take us to the hospital for us to get tested, to see if we carried the trait as well,” he explained.
The twins found out that they didn’t carry the trait, and growing up they watched their aunt travel, and live her life to the fullest, despite having the disease.
Devin credits their aunt’s long life to the consistency and care that she took care of her own health.
“She always followed the doctors’ orders.”
It wasn’t until they were students at Rutgers that they became more aware of the toll that sickle cell had on their aunt.
Now in her sixties, she is on oxygen, and has lost vision in both of her eyes due to sickle cell.
Partnering with the Embrace Kids Foundation, as well as their other charity work for those who have sickle cell, was taught something they were of their upbringing.
Jason credits his mother on teaching them the importance of giving back.
“My mom always said to us that, to who is given much, much is expected. That rang true for us,” said Jason.
“When God has blessed you, he expects and wants you to give back and show other people that they can do the same," he continued. "When we were able to make our mark and make it to the NFL, it was our opportunity to use our platform to be able to give back."
"We were able to overcome some adversity, our father passed away when we were three years old, and our mom was a single parent,” said Jason.
Later in the evening, Jason and Devin, along with the Embrace Kids Foundation, hosted a “Tackle Sickle Cell” casino-themed fundraiser at Rutgers, which raised over $35,000.
“Whether it’s a blood drive, a Casino Night to raise money, youth football camp, just showing people that you can come from where we’ve come from, and you can succeed and make a difference, I think it inspires other people.”
Devin hopes that others follow in their footsteps, and donate even if they are afraid.
“I think it’s hard. I play football and we got some guys on our team that won’t get a needle for anything," said Devin. "I would just tell them about the benefits. Hearing the stories of all these young men and women that are going through this disease and how much it helps them."
"I’ve been to hospitals and I’ve sat with a kid who was getting a blood transfusion," he continued. "They know it helps at a young age. If people understood that, it would help them get over the fear or even if they were scared the whole time, they would feel that they’re making a difference."
The Rutgers alumni are happy to give back, and to be back at their alma mater.
Jason says that it was his time at Rutgers that helped him grow into the man that’s he’s become.
“We’re always at Rutgers. Rutgers is a huge part of our lives. We were seventeen when we committed here to play football," he recalled.
"Rutgers helped us lay our foundation. Through those four or five years, you grow up and mature into becoming a man, an adult. So it’ll always be a special place for us, because it’s where we did a lot of our growing."
The twins were among the many other participants supporting the sickle cell cause at the event.
The NJ Sharing Network, a nonprofit that educates and raises awareness about the importance of life-saving organ and tissue donation, had an information table at the event.
Several Rutgers Football players, as well as Miss New Jersey, donated blood and took pictures with fans.
The family of Julie Vera, a 20-year-old woman who passed away from sickle cell on December 22, drove from Connecticut to attend.
Julie’s father, Xavier Vera, knows first-hand, the critical importance of blood transfusions in the sickle cell treatment.
“A transfusion would have helped,” said Xavier.
Julie, who had the rare O-negative blood type, had a heart attack due to complications from sickle cell.
The twins posed for pictures with the family, who wore "Julie's Journey" t-shirts in remembrance.
Silvana Cordona, Julie’s cousin, took pictures with the twins, while wearing Devin’s 2015 Super Bowl ring.
Cordona started an organization called "Julies Journey" seven months ago.
“I started Julie’s Journey to raise awareness and funds, and celebrate Julie’s life,” Cordona said.
So far, there has been a run, and musical tribute, in Julie’s honor. Julie’s Journey has a website, juliesjourneyy.org, and a Facebook page.
Silvana hopes to continue to grow the effort on Julie’s behalf, and to one day have a 5k race in Julie’s name.
Some donors pre-registered for the blood drive, while others were walk-ins. Either way, their donation was both needed, and appreciated.
Sally Wells, the Outreach Business Liaison for the Robert Wood Johnson Blood Services, wants people to know that blood donors are vital.
“There’s a constant need, particularly at RWJ, because we are a trauma center. Also because we have an affiliation with the Cancer Institute of New Jersey,” said Wells.
“Cancer and sickle cell patients are dependent on multiple blood transfusions to support their therapies,” she explained, adding that the hospital needs four times the amount it collects in-house at its own blood center.
“RWJ has a small blood center that collects 20% of the blood needed. The remainder comes from the New York Blood Center, the Community Blood Council, and the 50-60 blood drives that RWJ has throughout the year.”
For those who would like to donate blood, the RWJ blood center is open 6 days a week. To make an appointment, call (732) 235-8100.