From a cancer center, inspiration for USF

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

TAMPA - For all the celebration in the visiting locker room at Jordan-Hare Stadium, for all the fans who traveled to Alabama for USF's overtime upset of Auburn on Saturday night, the Bulls' win might have been most special in a normally quiet hospital room at the Moffitt Cancer Center on USF's campus.

"We probably kept a few patients awake," said Jeff Wagner, a 44-year-old USF graduate. "It was just unbelievable."

Wagner couldn't cheer Saturday, his voice gone as a side effect of a bone-marrow transplant he had two weeks ago to help his battle against acute myeloid leukemia. He made up for it by clapping, and his actions already had impacted the game.

When Wagner was diagnosed in May - he had beaten one round of leukemia in 2003, regaining his health enough to compete in triathlons - he came up with his BMAGs: "big, monstrous, audacious goals," including a bone-marrow drive, and helping with a Big Brother volunteer program.

His third goal was helping USF football, which he'd loved before it even existed. He arranged for coach Jim Leavitt to meet with R.V. Brown, a Tampa minister whose work as a motivational speaker has coincided with an amazing run of championships and success.

Brown spoke to the Bucs under Tony Dungy, to Florida before its national title last fall, even to Appalachian State, where he traveled last week to celebrate the team's upset of Michigan. Thanks to Wagner, Brown has been working with USF this season.

Wagner has shown himself to be quite the motivator, sending frequent notes to Leavitt - "locker-room material, if you'd like," he says, especially his new mantra: "FINISH STRONG."

The two words carried the Bulls through adversity Saturday night, and players repeated them in their celebration. Wagner was the first person Leavitt mentioned in his postgame comments.

Wagner also helped bring two opponents close together, sharing with Leavitt a letter that Auburn coach Tommy Tubervillesent him; Wagner's wife, Kim, is from Alabama, and her parents are Auburn graduates.

"I'm sure you realize that you are engaged in something much more important than a football game," the coach wrote. "I know that you will be pulling for South Florida that night, but I hope you know that we will all be pulling for you to come through this with a win."

Leavitt talked to his players about Wagner on Friday night, read them Tuberville's letter, and Wagner's words stuck with them.

"It motivated us a little more," cornerback Trae Williams said. "It made us keep fighting, so when we went to overtime, we just said, 'Finish strong.'"

Wagner still didn't have his voice Sunday when Leavitt called him, telling him how much he appreciated what he had done. He told Wagner it was now his turn to finish strong. He could be released from Moffitt by Monday, but with bone-marrow transplants, the key time frame is the first 100 days, which require near-constant supervision.

Wagner sold his USF season tickets, buying a high-def TV so he can watch the Bulls from home. His 100 days will finish in December, allowing him to attend a bowl game if USF can continue its strong play. Consider his Bulls very motivated to make that happen.

"Saturday made me feel so good to be part of this program," he said. "Prayers were answered."

To learn more about Wagner or send him a message, visit his Web site at wagnerlee.com.

THIS AND THAT: As if it weren't enough that USF got a $650,000 check from Auburn for playing Saturday's game, here's another fiscal reward for USF's big win. Because the Bulls' Sept. 22 game against North Carolina will now be on ESPN or ESPN2, USF will get an appearance-fee check for $101,911 from the Big East for getting a nonconference game on national telecast. ... A squad of USF soccer alumni will play an exhibition against former Tampa Bay Rowdies players at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, with USF's men's team facing American at 7. ... Off to a 5-1 start, the volleyball team has its home opener at 7 p.m. Thursday against Central Florida. The first 200 fans get free T-shirts.

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and at 813 226-3346.