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The story of the perfect match: CU football player saves Omaha man's life

Posted at 7:58 AM, Nov 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-24 16:25:52-05

Two men, miles and years apart now share a bond like no other.

“You know I didn't want to hug him too long or whatever, but he just didn't’t let me go,” said CU Senior Derek McCartney.  
“It just felt like we were one,” said John Steele of Omaha.

But, what brought a senior linebacker from Colorado and a 65-year-old lawyer from Omaha together? The story of the perfect match started in 2013.

Derek McCartney, the grandson of Hall of Fame Buffaloes Coach Bill McCartney, was a freshman at CU when his coach asked the team to participate in Be The Match, the world’s largest marrow registry.  Without hesitation, McCartney swabbed his cheek.  

“I did not really understand what I was getting involved in.  I was just told that it was very rare to get matched with anyone,” said McCartney. 

In December of 2014, John Steele received his diagnosis. 

“It was acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” said Steele.

After undergoing chemo therapy, specialists at Nebraska Medicine mentioned a stem cell transplant.  Initially Steele’s brother seemed like a match. 

“There is something in his blood that prevented him from being a donor, so they had to go to Be The Match to find a donor,” said Steele.

In January of 2016, Steele’s perfect match was contacted. 

“I didn't even think of it again until I got that phone call,” said McCartney.

It was game on for McCartney.

“I ended up missing the majority of spring ball because of the donation. It was crazy, but it was so worth it,” said McCartney.

“Were you always wondering who it was from,” asked Anchor Emily Szink.

“Oh that was the first thing on my mind,” said Steele.

But, Steele had to wait a year to find out who donated.

“The day we got the name we were looking him up and were like wow,” said Steele. 

Steele emailed McCartney, emails turned into text messages and that is how we got here. 

“Now we are friends and I consider him part of my family and I feel like they consider me part of their family too which is really cool,” said McCartney. 

Recently, the two men met face to face in Boulder before Senior Day.

“I am now a lifelong Buffs fan,” said Steele.

You probably never thought you’d hear a Nebraskan say that. 

Steele says right now there is a real need for minorities to signup.  To learn how you can get involved head to