Football affected many aspects of Tyler Genneken’s life.
He started playing as a bantam player in second grade. An avid Indianapolis Colts fan, he and his family were in south Florida when the team won Super Bowl XLI.
Just before his death from leukemia in 2009, he was named honorary captain of his Center Grove Middle School Central team.
His friends and family thought it was fitting to keep his memory alive with an annual benefit football tournament.
More than 1,000 elementary school and middle school football players, as well as parents, coaches and friends, will descend on the Center Grove area this weekend in honor of Tyler. The annual Pay It Forward Memorial Football Tournament will bring together 38 youth teams to raise awareness of pediatric cancers.
Volunteers will encourage people to donate blood and sign up for the national bone marrow registry program.
Participation has quadrupled since the tournament was founded in 2010. Organizers see that as a lasting legacy of Tyler’s selfless spirit.
“His legacy is obviously that he was strong kid, but that’s not what he was about. He was about not having other people be in the position he ended up in,” said Lane Morris, one of Tyler’s best friends. “A bone marrow transplant was out of reach for him, but he was encouraging people to go to blood drives and sign up to be the match that he was waiting for.”
The event is organized by the Tyler Genneken Foundation, a local nonprofit started by Tyler’s parents, Drew and Joyce Genneken. The goal is to register 10,000 people as donors in the National Bone Marrow Registry through the “Be the Match” program.
Tyler was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 11. While on family vacation in Florida, he developed a fever, and small bruises appeared on his body.
Aggressive chemotherapy over the course of two years seemed to be killing the cancer. He was well enough to join his school’s football team.
But in mid-2009, Tyler suffered a relapse. His only chance for survival was a bone marrow transplant, but no tissue match could be found in time. He died Nov. 4, 2009.
To make sure no one has to go through the agony of searching out a marrow match, Tyler made it is final goal to raise awareness about leukemia and other childhood cancers.
Before he died, Tyler’s goal was to encourage 500 family members and friends to join the donor list, which aims to create a national database of potential marrow donors. By late 2009, he had persuaded more than 1,500 people to sign up through a series of donor drives and awareness events.
With the help of the annual football tournament, nearly 3,500 people are now on the national registry directly through the work of the Tyler Genneken Foundation. Fourteen of those people have been matched with a cancer patient to help save their lives, Drew Genneken said.
“That’s a direct link between what we’re trying to accomplish and someone who’s getting the help they need,” he said.
Organizers of the Pay It Forward tournament have watched the event grow from nine local teams in 2010 to nearly 40 this year, with squads coming from as far away as Wisconsin and Ohio.
“It’s been a matter of word getting out, and people talking to each other about Tyler,” Drew Genneken said. “They understand that they’re not just coming down to have a good time and play football, but to support a great cause.”
Donations and entrance fees will go to support Be the Match, as well as Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
The foundation also is finding new ways to reach out to people. A line of clothing called Cure Wear features symbols of Tyler’s struggle.
One of the most popular designs is based on a tattoo that A.J. Genneken, Tyler’s older brother, got on his back. The design features angel wings over his shoulder blades and Tyler’s initials in the middle. A halo hovers over the initials.
“I really want to be walking down the street someday and see that design on someone I don’t even know. To know that it was reaching beyond our friends and family would be so exciting,” A.J. Genneken said.
The 23-year-old has been more involved with the tournament this year, helping with the planning and scheduling.
“It’s a great way to keep his dream going on and his wishes to keep going,” he said.