- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Alex Powell’s lifelong dream was to be a Spartan. His dream came true nine months before he died from tumors that had spread throughout his body.

This week, Army ROTC cadets from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan will run 64 miles from East Lansing to Ann Arbor to deliver the official game football before Saturday’s match-up.

For the second year in a row, they’ll be making the trek in honor of Powell, who enrolled at MSU in fall 2010. They’ll be running to help students, who, like him, fight to overcome disease and disability to achieve their dreams.

Raised by a Spartan family and growing up in Okemos, Alex was green and white practically from birth, said his mother, Juliana Powell.

“His goal from the time he was younger was to become a Spartan,” Juliana told the Lansing State Journal ( https://on.lsj.com/1OyZcMe ).

During his senior year of high school, Alex, who competed in football, baseball, cross-country and track, started complaining of back pain and migraine headaches. He saw a family doctor and visited a chiropractor, but found nothing out of the ordinary.

Then, in February that year, Alex and his mother were laughing in the car on the way to a physical therapy appointment. All of sudden, his mother remembers him bending forward, gasping, barely able to breathe through the pain. Juliana rushed him to a nearby urgent care, where they called an ambulance to take him to Sparrow Hospital.

At the hospital, doctors scanned Alex and found a tumor so large it had nearly taken over his heart. He was immediately transferred to what is now MSU’s Breslin Cancer Center for open-heart surgery.

From there, Alex needed back surgery to remove a tumor that was floating in his spine. Pumped from his heart, tumors had already begun to spread all over his body.

“I went from having a healthy, strong kid that used to pick me up,” Juliana said. “In 15 months, my son died in my arms.”

Despite a cancer diagnosis, two major surgeries and a rigorous chemotherapy and radiation schedule, Alex still wanted to be a Spartan.

His mother wasn’t sure how it would be possible. Alex’s immune system was compromised - he wouldn’t be able to have a roommate. He would need to travel to Ann Arbor to receive treatment at the University of Michigan cancer center every 21 days for four days in a row. He needed a lot of rest in order to make it through a demanding regimen of treatment.

Fortunately, there was help. Juliana reached out to MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. There, disability specialist Shani Feyen worked with Alex and his family to get him a single occupancy, ground-level dorm room that was close to his classes. While he was in Ann Arbor getting treatment, Alex was able to get slides and notes for the lectures he missed.

In spite of his fight with cancer, Alex was able to have the full Spartan experience, Feyen said. He attended classes, tailgated with his friends and camped out in the Breslin Center during Midnight Madness.

“It’s really about empowering the student to access what they need in order to be successful Spartans,” Feyen said. “We give them accommodations, tools, skills and positive redirection and support.”

Feyen said her office not only helps students with apparent disabilities, such as blindness or mobility issues, but also those with “invisible disabilities,” such as chronic illness, cancer or even migraine headaches.

Last year the center helped nearly 1,600 students with disabilities, as well as MSU employees, said Michael Hudson, director of the center.

“We usually think of disabilities as visual ones that we can see,” Juliana said. “This was truly the only way he could have gone to school.”

In mid-October, Alex’s doctors discovered 15 tumors in his brain, estimating he had just six months left to live. He moved back home a short while later. He died on Mother’s Day 2011, at the age of 19.

Alex wanted to be a dentist like his dad. When he lost the full use of his arms and hands to his cancer, he decided to be a physician’s assistant instead, in order to help other cancer patients who had to go through the same thing he did.

While he never became a physician’s assistant, Juliana said her son is still helping others to overcome disease and disability, just in a different way.

After her son’s death, Juliana wanted to do something to raise awareness and support for the Resource Center that had helped Alex so much while he was in school.

She met with Hudson, who connected her with Scott Westerman, executive director and associate vice president for alumni relations at MSU.

Because he was a Spartan, and because of the top-notch treatment Alex had received at the University of Michigan, Westerman saw an opportunity to bring a positive spin to the rivalry between the two schools.

The result was Alex’s Great State Race.

Last year, Army ROTC cadets from MSU and the University of Michigan ran, side by side, the 64 miles from Ann Arbor to East Lansing to deliver two official game balls - one for MSU and one for U of M. They tackled the challenge in teams of four cadets, two from each school, who each raced a five-mile leg of the journey. For the last five miles into East Lansing, all of the cadets joined together for the final stretch.

Leading up to the race, the schools competed to raise money for MSU’s Resource Center and the University of Michigan’s counterpart, Services for Students with Disabilities. With individual donations and corporate sponsorships, the event last year raised more than $60,000 for students with disabilities.

This year, some 50 Army ROTC cadets will be making the trek again - this time from East Lansing to Ann Arbor - starting from the Sparty Statue at 3:30 a.m. Friday and ending at the University of Michigan Diag at noon Friday. Spectators are welcome at the Diag to cheer the cadets in.

Donors have the option to support the University of Michigan cancer center this year, in addition to the centers for persons with disabilities at both schools.

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Online: www.alexsgreatstaterace.org

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Information from: Lansing State Journal, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com


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