Feb. 8, 2013
By JONAH ROSENBLUM
For Thyron Lewis, charity begins at home.
The Cleveland Gladiators wide receiver has dedicated a good portion of his offseason toward planning a flag football game to help raise funds to combat sickle cell anemia, a disease that afflicts several of his family members, including one of his wife’s cousins. Proceeds from the event will also go toward a Los Angeles park, near where Lewis grew up, in support of the very recreation programs that Lewis found his legs in growing up.
Lewis’ call to duty began in the family, as he watched his wife’s cousin suffer from the effects of sickle cell anemia.
“She had at least two attacks this year alone,” Lewis said. “There are a lot of things to it. They can’t really be in the cold. They have to be covered up. It’s just certain things that they have to watch and that they really can’t do or otherwise they can get really sick. If they get real sick, then we’re in the hospital for days or weeks. They might have to have a blood transfusion.”
Sickle cell anemia, which is particularly prevalent among the African-American population, is a disease which causes red blood cells to take on a crescent or sickle shape. The cells, when in their standard disc form, move through the body with ease, transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. The sickle-shaped cells, however, can get stuck and block blood flow, causing pain and organ damage.
“There is somewhat of a notion still that sickle cell disease has been cured. There is no universal cure for sickle cell disease. Bone marrow transplants have cured some with sickle cell disease, but this is only a small percentage of the population,” Mary Brown, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sickle Cell Foundation of California, said. “We’ve made some good strides, but we have an awful long way to go.”
It was Lewis’ eldest daughter, who has the trait but not the full disease, who inspired Lewis to get involved. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “people who have sickle cell trait usually have few, if any, symptoms and lead normal lives.” Lewis said that was certainly the case with his daughter.
“She hasn’t had any attacks,” Lewis said. “She’s real tender-headed because of the trait. Certain things that might not bother a kid might bother her, but she’s up and running and she’s fine. You wouldn’t know even that she has the trait. She’s fine. She’s a normal kid.”
Lewis said that his daughter manages to carry on as if there’s nothing wrong.
“We’ve told her that she has the trait, but she’s up and going to school,” Lewis said. “She’s active and playing with her sister. She doesn’t even ask questions about it. I don’t really think it affects her, which I’m glad for.”
Lewis was affected though.
As a result, on Saturday, February 9, 2012, a smattering of athletes and musicians will gather to compete in a flag football game at Redondo Beach Union High School, where Lewis serves as the defensive backs coach. The proceeds will go in part to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, which cares for more than 400 patients with sickle cell disease annually, making it the largest such program in the state of California, according to the hospital’s website.
“I want to do something to give back and help,” Lewis said. “It might not be much, but it would be something, just to get people more informed. I’ve found out a lot of people have the trait or they know somebody.”
Brown said that both awareness and money are needed to help deal with sickle cell anemia.
“Sickle cell disease is flying under the radar on most screens. We have over 100,000 people in the United States with sickle cell disease, and this disease is not as well supported as many other diseases, even as cystic fibrosis,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re struggling locally and nationally to make sure that this disease gets the type of attention that has been sorely lacking for many years.”
Just as Lewis’ involvement in combating the effects of sickle cell anemia stemmed from his personal life, his decision to raise money for a Los Angeles park reflects deeply-held beliefs about the importance of sports in the lives of young people. It originates from his own experiences, as he reflected on the role sports played in his childhood and on how difficult it was for him to find a place to play.
“I grew up in South Central Los Angeles,” Lewis said. “On the east side of Los Angeles, a lot of parks didn’t have programs like that. I would have to travel to one of my cousin’s parks and play in their leagues. My dad would go coach at a park far away just so I could play.”
Lewis, who said that he loves working with children, has kept close ties to youth sports, even serving as a referee for middle school games. He said that when he received word that Trinity Park, near where he grew up, had shut down its football program, he had to get involved. Such programs help keep kids out of trouble, according to Lewis.
“Certain things are different now,” Lewis said. “The way things are now is better as far as kids having better options. ‘This park I live by has a sports program. Let me get involved so I don’t get in trouble.’”
Among the players scheduled to compete in Saturday’s flag football contest are Thyrell Lewis, who was under contract with the Cleveland Gladiators at one point last season; Andrae Thurman, a longtime Arena Football League receiver currently with the Philadelphia Soul; Marcus Everett, a two-way player for the Chicago Rush; and Mike Bragg, a defensive back who recorded five interceptions for the Cleveland Gladiators in 2011. Nnamdi Asomugha, a longtime National Football League cornerback, and Joe Haden, a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, may also attend.
The event will also include an obstacle course, prizes given by a local radio station and an auction. After everything on the gridiron is well and done, there will be an after party, hosted by MMBMusicGroup, with ticket prices ranging from $40 to $45 and corporate sponsorship packages ranging from $2,500 to $5,000.
“This is actually something that my manager and I, we have actually put this together hand-in-hand,” Lewis said. “This is something that I’ve done myself, doing all the fieldwork. This is my project, my project and her project. It means more to me because I really want this to go through for the kids.”
Scheduling the event was not easy for Lewis, who had never hosted his own charity event before.
“Man, it’s days and days of letters to sponsors and getting a sponsorship package and itinerary and e-mails,” Lewis said. “People might think, ‘Oh, I’m just going to plan a little flag game,’ but there’s more to it than just sitting down for one day.”
What made the work worth it, however, was that Lewis could bring his event – and its rewards – home.
“Home is home. This is where I was born, where I was raised. I spend a lot of time in the South with family, but this is home. You can’t forget where you came from. I would never change any day of my life,” Lewis said. “A lot of people may sit back when they were younger and say, ‘Oh, I wish I grew up here and here.’ Los Angeles is Los Angeles. If anybody ever wants to visit Los Angeles and has never been here, it’s a great place.”
For Lewis, charity is a deeply personal affair. It’s about what his family has had to go through in terms of sickle cell anemia. It’s about the trips his father made to get him into a sports league. It’s about his hometown of Los Angeles, where charity begins – and the benefits of a man who never forgot where he came from will end up.