Kornacki: Former Wolverines Run With Purpose for Evelyn Grace

May 7, 2015

Teammates of John Spytek
To help raise money for the Compete 4 CMV group formed by their Wolverines teammate John Spytek and his wife, Kristen, nine former Michigan football players ran together in the OhioHealth Capital City Half Marathon on May 2 in Columbus, Ohio (from left): Andy Mignery, Tony Pape, Grant Bowman, John Navarre, Eric Rosel, David Pearson and Brent Cummings. Not pictured: Steve Baker and Phillip Brackins.

By Steve Kornacki

Can you put true friendship into words?

There are many possible definitions, but the reactions of nine former University of Michigan football players to their teammate and close friend's devastating loss the day after Christmas could best define it.

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John Spytek, a member of the Wolverines' 2003 Big Ten championship team, and his wife, Kristen, a Michigan graduate, lost their daughter, Evelyn Grace, on Dec. 26. She died three months shy of her second birthday from complications due to CMV-related surgery. CMV is cytomegalovirus, a common virus that weakens the immune system.

It was a stunner for them all during what was supposed to be the season of good cheer.

What could they do to comfort their friends? That was all any of the nine could think about. And they each came to the same conclusion on their own.

"Nobody asked us to come," said Grant Bowman, the former Wolverines defensive lineman now living in New Albany, Ohio. "But the only question for all of us was, 'When do we get there?' All nine of us got there as soon as we could."

John Navarre, the star quarterback from that 2003 team, drove Brent Cummings, Tony Pape and Phillip Brackins in his Ford F250. They met in Chicago and drove 1,000 miles to the foot of the Rocky Mountains and the Denver home of the Spyteks. The others -- Eric Rosel, Andy Mignery, David Pearson, Steve Baker and Bowman -- drove by themselves or flew into town.

Pearson was Evelyn's godfather.

"One of the best acts of friendship I've ever seen was him getting there on Dec. 27 and staying an entire week," said Bowman, a tri-captain on the 2003 team. "Dave just got a one-way ticket and stayed with them to comfort them. He did the eulogy.

"I had already entered the Capital City Half Marathon (May 2 in Columbus, Ohio) and was going to run it alone. But when we were all together for Evelyn's funeral, I said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we all ran and raised money for CMV?' Now, some of us weren't in the greatest shape, but we all got into shape and ran it for Evelyn."

John, Kristen and Evelyn Spytek
John and Kristen Spytek (left) created Compete 4 CMV to raise funds to bring awareness to a virus that weakens the immune system and caused the death of their daughter, Evelyn Grace (right).

Kristen Spytek said Compete 4 CMV, "an event-based fundraiser," has raised $125,000 for helping prevent CMV with education and by creating awareness. And $56,000 of that came from the Columbus half marathon pledges and those from shorter races that day. Four wives of the players, including Kristen, and three other former Wolverines student-athletes formed the 16-person unit that raced for Evelyn and spent the weekend with the Bowmans.

"I can't believe what they've all done for us, for our family, for our daughter and for the foundation," said Kristen. "The new life events we've all gone through together have made their bond, and now the bond of our families, even stronger."

Bowman counted 22 children among the nine former Wolverines football players, including Jack Spytek, born in January, weeks after his sister's passing.

"It was a pretty intense time," said Bowman, who works for an investment company. "But Jack is a really strong kid and looks just like his father."

John became a national scout for the Denver Broncos last year, and so much has happened since then.

"All of this has brought us closer together than we ever thought possible," said John. "It was all pretty overwhelming. It's hard to put into words. Our common bond is that we played football together at Michigan. But when we leave to get together, we say that we are going to see our friends.

"They could see the suffering we were going through and had such feeling for us. It's been an inspiration and it helps us get through each day -- knowing they are doing all of this for us and raising awareness. I called each one of them and thanked them for running. It's beyond description. It reminds me of how Evelyn dealt with adversity and smiled through it."

John's reaction got to Bowman.

"It's touching to hear him say that," said Bowman. "It's gone from being their cause to being our cause. It's the power of Evelyn. Every one of us held her and knew her and cherished her."

Kristen said their daughter had a way of making people happy despite her pain.

"She was always smiling and laughing," said Kristen. "You'd never know she was facing a ton of adversity. And she touched the guys in a special way. They appreciated her infectious smile and laugh. She touched so many people.

"We want to do right by her, and that's why we're so motivated with this cause. We miss her every day, but since December we have a new purpose."

According to the website NationalCMV.org, one in 150 children in the U.S. is born with congenital CMV each year for a total of 30,000 annually. However, the website states that only 87 percent of women have ever heard of CMV. Connecting women with knowledge of CMV and its prevention is what drives the Spyteks.

"There is no FDA-approved therapy, and it's easily transmitted with bodily fluids," said Kristen, who works for a marketing firm. "When you are pregnant and get CMV, it seems like a cold or the flu.

"Women should have their blood tested both before and after becoming pregnant to check for antibodies specific to CMV. Washing your hands, not sharing cups or utensils, and being careful with diapers are all important in preventing CMV."

Spytek said it's critical for women to determine whether they are CMV negative or positive through blood work to learn their risks and preventative measures.

Group at Bowman House
The group of former Michigan football players and their families at the New Albany, Ohio, home of Grant Bowman after running for the Compete 4 CMV team in a Columbus, Ohio, half marathon.

John ran his first marathon last year in Seattle to raise money for Compete 4 CMV with Jeff Rich, another former Wolverine teammate. And they plan to run along with Pearson in theJune 20Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, to generate more pledge money.

"I'm doing this to make up for missing Columbus," said John, who made 37 tackles as a Michigan linebacker. "They picked the one weekend that I could not get away because of the NFL Draft. It was kind of a bummer."

Bowman joked about doing that intentionally because Spytek would've been his prime competition to finish first in the group of 16. And Bowman succeeded in doing that with a time of 1:49 for 13.1 miles.

John recalled a conversation he had with former Wolverines head coach and their defensive line coach, Brady Hoke, about Bowman becoming a marathoner.

John said, "Brady Hoke told me, 'I'd love to see Bowman run a half marathon.'"

Bowman, who weighed 310 pounds when in camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent in 2004, now weighs 235 pounds.

"Brady also was around me when I had a couple of knee surgeries and a rod in my leg and could hardly walk," said Bowman, who had 10 sacks and 87 tackles for the Wolverines.

Bowman said their head coach at Michigan, Lloyd Carr, impacted each of them when they began arriving in Ann Arbor in the late 1990s. All nine of them played on the 2001 team, and seven of them were on the 2003 squad, which Navarre also served as a captain along with linebacker Carl Diggs and Bowman.

"Our group of guys had values and goals that were similar," said Bowman. "We have a text chain we share that has something about our lives on it almost every day. We got married at the same time, had kids at the same time, and got real jobs at the same time.

"It's just a great group of human beings. But it comes back to the struggles you go through as a team with a strong leader like Lloyd Carr, who taught us to be tough and to be caring."

Kristen said Carr "reached out with the loss of our daughter" and said they visit the Hall of Fame coach whenever they come to Ann Arbor.

They've all stayed close even though it's been a dozen years since they played for the Wolverines.

"What we have in our group is a family," said Bowman. "We really do have that. All of us would do anything to help our teammate. Running this marathon was one of the 10 best weekends of my life.

"It's important for all of our kids to get to know one another and continue our bonds. This is just the start of righting a wrong, and it provided us a cause that enables us to do something really positive."

John Spytek still can't get over it all.

"We started out with a strong bond at Michigan," he said. "And now the guys have said, 'Let's do something for Evelyn.' Evelyn brought us all closer together."

They once held her in their arms. They now hold her in their thoughts. They go the extra miles for Evelyn Grace.

The group that helped raise $56,000 for the Compete 4 CMV team at the OhioHealth Capital City Half Marathon on May 2 included 14 former Michigan student-athletes: Front row (from left): Kaely (Cohoon) Rosel, cheerleader; Stephanie Chavez, women's soccer; Erika (Kleinholz) Fielder, women's soccer; Teresa (Pallone) Bowman; Carly (Williamson) Melton, women's soccer; Anna (Brede) Mignery, women's track and field; and Kristen (Hutchinson) Spytek, Michigan graduate. Back row (football players): Eric Rosel, Andy Mignery, David Pearson, Brent Cummings, Grant Bowman, Tony Pape and John Navarre. Not pictured: Steve Baker, Phillip Brackins.

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