It’s Game Time for Stem Cell Donor Tyler Mueller ’25

Through an on-campus donor drive, the rugby player was matched to give a potentially lifesaving donation

Through the organization Be the Match, Tyler Mueller ’25 donated stem cells to potentially save the life of a young boy with leukemia. (Photo by Gabe Souza)
By Laura Meader
November 21, 2022

Tyler Mueller ’25 may not feel like a hero, but there’s a good chance he has saved the life of a boy with leukemia.

In October Mueller donated stem cells for the anonymous 15-year-old boy. “I still don’t fully understand the magnitude of what I’m doing,” said Mueller. “It hasn’t hit me yet—and won’t until I meet him.”

Mueller will have to wait a year for that meeting because of privacy rules established by the organization Be the Match, which used its marrow registry to identify him as a match. Until that day, Mueller plans to do whatever he can to encourage others to get involved.

“I definitely want to have more of an impact with this organization and do something in my hometown,” said Mueller, 19, of Newbury, Mass. “I want to spread more awareness overall about this process and how others can save a life.”

Operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, Be the Match has for 30 years managed a marrow registry for patients facing life-threatening blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell disease. For these patients, a cure exists through a bone marrow, stem cell, or cord blood transplant, yet only between 29 percent and 79 percent of patients find their match, depending on their ethnic background. The registry needs more donors—especially donors of color. Joining the registry is as easy as swabbing the inside of your cheek to collect a DNA sample.

Mueller joined Be the Match’s registry in April during a donor drive on campus coordinated by the Colby football team. He heard about the drive from his brother, Nick Mueller ’24, an offensive lineman for the Mules who also joined the registry.

The younger Mueller, a forward on Colby’s men’s rugby team, didn’t think much about his swab afterward until he received an urgent call in August informing him of the match.

“It was a very surreal moment,” Mueller said of the phone call. “I hopped off the call and really didn’t think too much about it. I was locked in right away.” Nick Mueller was also identified as a match, but because Tyler Mueller is younger, he was the best candidate for the donation.

Nick Mueller ’24 (left) also joined Be the Match’s marrow registry and was deemed a match for a boy with leukemia. But since Nick is older than his brother, Tyler Mueller ’25, who also was a match, he was listed as a backup donor. (Photo by Jasper Lowe)

The Mueller brothers are the second and third Colby students to be matched through a drive at Colby. Tyler Mueller is the second student to actually give a donation; Sam Kelly ’20 was the first. Kelly was identified during Colby’s first drive, in April 2018, four months after Coach Jack Cosgrove arrived on Mayflower Hill.

Cosgrove, the inaugural Dick McGee Head Coach for Colby Football, brought the initiative with him from the University of Maine, where he’d previously coached for 23 years. His initial drive at UMaine was in 1995, his first year as head coach. Cosgrove learned about these drives from Andy Talley, then head football coach at Villanova University, who recruited Cosgrove through his Get in the Game program.

Now part of the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation, Get in the Game partners with Be the Match to educate college football players about how they can potentially help save lives by joining the registry.

“We would hold our drives on Maine Day, a popular service day at UMaine,” said Cosgrove, who now serves on Get in the Game’s board. Each drive collected between 300 and 400 swabs, he said. But in 23 years, he had only about a half dozen matched, fewer than he expected.

Jack Cosgrove, Colby’s Dick McGee Head Coach for Colby Football, introduced donor drives at Colby in 2018. Since then, three Colby students have been matched to children with life-threatening blood diseases. Two of them have given donations. (Photo by Jasper Lowe)

One of those matches was his own son, Matthew Cosgrove. In the spring of 2018, Matthew Cosgrove, now 27, donated bone marrow to a 14-year-old Brazilian boy and saved his life. “Going through it with my son really touched home,” said Cosgrove. “Seeing the result of something that was so simple to do and the impact it had on the life of a young man in another hemisphere” made Cosgrove and his wife understandably proud of their son.

The experience also gives Cosgrove credibility with his players. “Having experienced that part of it, it’s easy for me to talk about the value and importance of it to our young men,” he said.

Cosgrove noted that his son’s bone marrow donation—in which a needle extracts bone marrow from the hip while a patient is under anesthesia—wasn’t difficult or painful. Mueller’s donation was completed in a couple of hours through a noninvasive, automated blood donation that separates stem cells from the blood via a centrifuge.

Prior to the donation, Mueller was given the drug filgrastim to increase the number of his white blood cells. Because filgrastim can enlarge the spleen, Mueller was required to sit out three weeks of his rugby season this fall. The global studies major and economics minor missed only a few classes. All a small compromise, he said, compared to the opportunity to save a life.

Mueller and Cosgrove are united in their desire to grow the number of donations collected at Colby each spring. The first three drives netted about 200 donations. The 2022 drive saw that number expand to 276 thanks to participation from Colby’s swimming and diving team.

Assistant Football Coach Tom Dexter, left, oversees donor drives at Colby along with the Dick McGee Head Coach for Colby Football Jack Cosgrove. Each year, approximately 200 Colby students, mostly members of the football team, take a cheek swap to join the marrow registry with the organization Be the Match. (Photo by Jasper Lowe)

As Colby’s student population continues to diversify, the College can help increase the donation pool for patients of color, who face lower odds of finding a match, according to Be the Match. On the football team alone, the number of diverse students has grown from two to 40 in the five years Cosgrove has coached here.

“It’s important for people to know how easy the process is and how much effect it can have on people,” said Mueller. “Just one cheek swab and you’re done.”

Except for the possibility of being a hero, which lasts a lifetime.