KINGSTON, R.I. - You won't find No. 32 on your Rhode Island women's volleyball roster. But she is a real person, and she has been a motivational force for the Rams this season.
For now, No. 32 is symbolic. She is the 32-year-old woman who earlier this month received a bone marrow transfusion from Rhode Island volleyball player Caroline Casey. On Oct. 17, Casey completed a marrow donation at the Rhode Island Blood Center in Providence, becoming the fifth person from URI athletics and the 10th individual overall to be a match through the football team's annual bone marrow registration drive.
"A few weeks ago, the team was not really playing all that well, and our coach wasn't really happy with the way we were practicing," Casey said. "My teammates made this woman who was receiving my marrow our motivational force. We made her our No. 32.
"Even though we don't know more about her, adding that No. 32 to the team made it seem more tangible. It's strange not to be able to picture this person. And yet, in the back of my mind, there is some form of connection to this person. In many ways, it's all abstract because you don't know who or where this person is, but you know they are out there."
It has been somewhat of a surreal experience for Casey, who registered as a potential marrow donor during the spring of her freshman year. Even after she got the initial call saying she might be a match, it didn't seem like a reality.
"Only about one in every seven people identified as possible matches go on to the next step," Casey said. "I didn't think much about it still at that point.
"A couple weeks later when they contacted me and said I was a match, I was kind of shocked. I didn't know what to say. I was excited, but there also was a hint of nervousness because I was hoping even though I was in season I would be able to go through with it. I wanted to do it, but I wasn't sure logistics wise how it would all work out."
Casey had a choice to make. Going through with the donation meant missing several days of practice, as well as playing time. Conversations with football head coach Joe Trainer and former football player Matt Greenhalgh helped Casey realize what she needed to do.
In April of 2011, Greenhalgh became the first marrow match through the annual drive. In August of 2012, he met his recipient, Ken. Greenhalgh insisted on talking with Casey over the phone, and he calmed her nerves about the process.
"It was nice having him as part of the support system," Casey said. "Because he has gone through it and he has met his recipient, he knows the full impact you can have on a person. He was so excited for me. Even though I was excited, I wasn't excited to the same level as Matt. He knows first hand what it is like, and that made me realize how big of a deal this was."
Trainer, who has organized the drive in each of his five years as head coach of the football team, has seen players Matt and John Greenhalgh as well as assistant coach Ryan Mattison complete donations in the last three years. John Greenhalgh and Mattison both did it while in season.
The day Casey found out she was a match, her brother, Luke Casey, a freshman on the football team, told Trainer. That evening, Trainer called Caroline Casey to discuss the matter.
"Coach Trainer told me, 'If my team was playing for the national championship and my starting quarterback found out he had this opportunity, I would tell him 100 percent, hands down, go do this. This is more important than sports,'" Casey said.
"Sports are obviously our passion, but it is not life. There is more to life than sports, especially when you are talking about giving someone else the opportunity of life. Coach Trainer provided so much support."
When Casey's parents were in town shortly after she found out, Trainer made a point of sitting with them at a volleyball match to discuss the decision Caroline had to make.
"He talked about big-picture perspective," Casey said "It really helped me and it helped my parents, knowing that I had that kind of support here. It just made me realize this was the right thing to do."
"I have a personal relationship with Carol and her family. I've known her for a long time, and she is such a special, special person," Trainer said. "She has gone on mission trips and is very involved with the Newman Club on campus, all while being a great athlete on a Division I volleyball team.
"Of all the matches we have had, this is one that really hits my heart. When somebody of her magnitude and with the platform she has can make a statement like this, it's truly awesome. She is a tremendous credit to the athletic department, the university, her family and her faith."
Casey said Rhode Island athletic trainer Michelle Barber and her teammates were among the first people she told.
"Right away, my teammates were all for me doing it," Casey said. "They talked about the opportunity and told me they were proud to be my teammate. They all just rallied around it, and used it as motivation to play for No. 32."
Now that 32-year-old woman has a piece of Caroline Casey with her. Casey will have to wait a year before possibly meeting the recipient, and even then, it will be up to the woman. For now, she will wait and hope for the best.
"It's weird that it is over, because there was so much that went into it," Casey said. "The doctors visits, the tests, the actual marrow donation. It's all done. It felt like I was being proactive, and people would say, 'Hey, you are saving a life.' But now, it's just a matter of waiting and hoping this person is going to be okay."
The decision Casey made no longer seems like a difficult one. In fact, she relishes the idea of being an advocate for others faced with the choice of whether or not to donate.
"Go for it," Casey said, when asked what her message to others would be. "It is so rewarding personally. There really are extreme benefits for the recipient. Overall, the process is not that big a deal. It took one week of my life, compared to life for another person."