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County man touched by leukemia goes for world-record fundraiser

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A Center Grove area man has seen leukemia kill his wife, and blood cancers have taken the lives of his business partner, his friends and other people close to him.

John Merrill hopes to have an impact in the fight against leukemia and other blood cancers by raising $150,000 for research. His main fundraiser will be a massive session of “knockout,” the popular playground basketball game, on Sunday. The world record for most people in a game of knockout is 571, and Merrill thinks his game can surpass that.

“It will provide some healing for the community as well as raise awareness and vital funds to find a cure. Not just for blood cancers, but for all cancers,” Merrill said.

The game is part of Merrill’s campaign for Man and Woman of the Year through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Indianapolis. He and 12 other area residents will attempt to raise the most money for blood cancer research and programs. The man and woman who bring in the highest donations win.

Since starting the competition in 2009, the chapter has raised nearly $1.8 million, said Mandi Fagan, spokeswoman for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

All participants have been affected by blood cancers in a variety of ways.

Merrill’s wife, Michelle Merrill, died in 2009, succumbing to leukemia following a remission. She originally was diagnosed with a primary brain tumor in 1997. The prognosis was not good. Doctors said she had a low chance of survival.

But with chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer was kept under control. During a regular checkup in 2008 she was diagnosed with leukemia. Michelle Merrill had a bone marrow transplant from her brother, which was deemed a success. The leukemia returned several months later.

“She was in the hospital for about seven of the last eight months of her life,” John Merrill said.

The Merrill family lived near Tyler Genneken, the Center Grove area teen who died of leukemia in 2009. He rode the bus and was friends with Jacob Merrill, John and Michelle’s son. Rhea Roller, who was friends with John Merrill’s daughter, also was diagnosed with the disease and is in remission. John Merrill’s close friend and business partner, Ken Murawski, died of leukemia in February.

John Merrill’s involvement with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society dates to before his wife’s diagnosis. Before she became ill, he had planned to run in the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon. A friend, a leukemia survivor, suggested he join Team in Training. The running-centric fundraiser generates money for the society to research blood cancers.

Though Michelle Merrill’s illness and death ultimately pushed that goal aside, John Merrill picked it back up.

“I went to a Team in Training sign-up event. Part of the program is fundraising, and I got what I call the ‘sympathy vote,’” he said. “People responded to my situation, and I ended up raising $10,000 for my first mini-marathon.”

His success led to people asking him to run for Man and Woman of the Year. John Merrill deflected their requests, instead serving on the executive committee and helping others raise money through the competition. But last year, after friend Matt Cohoat won Man of the Year, he finally was persuaded to take his turn.

John Merrill’s goal is to raise $150,000. For every $50,000 that he raises, he can link a research grant to a specific person’s name.

“Our ultimate goal is not to win Man of the Year. The ultimate goal is to link research grants in honor of those that we’ve lost as well as in honor of those who have survived,” he said.

The knockout idea came from Murawski, who was active in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Cincinnati. Murawski’s children had been involved with a world-record knockout game involving 660 people.

Organizers are trying to get 1,000 people or more playing knockout. Every player will be assigned a registration number, to know where to stand in the massive line. Licensed basketball officials, a requirement for a world record, will officiate.

Anyone can play the game, in which you try to make baskets before the person ahead of you in line to knock them out of the competition. John Merrill and his fellow organizers need to meticulously record the number of participants and how the game is played in order for it to be accepted by the Guinness Book of World Records. Certified public accountants will handle that aspect.

They will submit the bid to claim the record afterward, assuming they have more than the current record, he said.

Details of the event are still coming together. John Merrill is working to line up entertainment, such as Fishers-based singer Laura Lavelle. Indiana University basketball star Quinn Buckner and former Indianapolis Colts player Billy Brooks will take part.

The process of raising money and working to be Man of the Year has been difficult, John Merrill said. But the ultimate goal will be satisfying, regardless of if he wins or not.

“Running for Man of the Year is the most humbling experience I’ve had in my life,” he said. “I’m humbled by the support I’ve gotten. You find out who your friends are, and you find out who really loves you.”

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