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Former Wolverines band together for good cause

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

There always was something special about their group, and they knew it.

Now, about a dozen years after their football days ended at Michigan, they have rallied to support one of their own, John Spytek.

Spytek and his wife, Kristen, lost their 21-month old daughter, Evelyn Grace, to complications from CMV-related surgery in December.

On Saturday, a number of Spytek's former teammates — Steve Baker, Grant Bowman, Phil Brackins, Brent Cummings, Andy Mignery, John Navarre, Tony Pape, Dave Pearson, Eric Rosel — and ex-Michigan soccer players Carly Williamson-Melton, Stephanie Chavez and Ericka Kleinholz-Fielder will run in the Capital City half-marathon in Columbus to raise money in honor of Evelyn.

"Evelyn brought us closer than we already were and are and will continue to do be," Mignery said. "We latched onto each other at Michigan. We built a nucleus of a squad that has become brothers in a real world.

"When you understand the challenges she was given in life — she was just a wonderful sweet little girl who always had a smile and laughed and made eye contact ... She had such an effect on our lives, we want to help. It's bigger than ourselves, and we want to create awareness."

CMV is cytomegalovirus, a common virus that weakens the immune system. It can infect almost anyone, and can be passed on to newborns, who may develop vision loss and nervous system complications.

The Spyteks are launching a world-wide campaign — their website, NationalCMV.org, launches today — to educate people about CMV, and encourage doctors to make the virus and potential testing a key part of their discussions with patients.

Raising awareness

Spytek used a group text to tell his friends Evelyn died Dec. 26. And within 48 hours, they were there, having driven through the night or flown across country.

Pearson even dedicated a 24-hour challenge in New York last year for Evelyn, and is running a marathon with Spytek in June.

"I didn't know anything about CMV before she was born, got to understand it, and it is a disease that people need to be made aware of," said Pearson, who was Evelyn's godfather, "Knowing it's preventable and there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk, that information just isn't out there."

Said Kristen Spytek: "They've taken this tragedy and made it something better. It's carrying us through in a lot of ways."

She said only 13 percent of women have heard of CMV. According to medical research, 1 in 150, or 30,000 in the U.S., are born with congenital CMV infection. About 5,000 babies born in the U.S. each year with the virus develop permanent problems.

"It's rather cathartic to help other women," she said. "We want to be in the business of saving babies and helping other women. We want to make a difference. This can happen to anyone. This is preventable."

John Spytek said it was a natural progression for them to start the foundation.

"You can do something, or you can do nothing," he said.

"We're both people who do something. We want to do right by Evelyn. To do nothing would be a shame."

Competing again

And that's why Spytek's teammates have joined the fight.

The group has been tight-knit since they arrived at Michigan, and now they communicate daily.

And with the half-marathon training, their competitiveness has been reignited. They all file their training and running statistics on Instagram so they can access the information and set the bar higher if needed.

"It's getting competitive, which is cool," Mignery said. "I don't want John Navarre's fat (butt) to beat me, so I'm taking this seriously."

The players, collectively, have lost 300 pounds while training for the half-marathon, which in itself has been a challenge for most of them, considering several were linemen and all of them, generally speaking, are on the larger size.

The irony is they're running in Columbus, the heart of arch-rival Ohio State country.

And on Saturday, they'll all wear maize-and-blue shirts that promote the CMV cause.

"It's sort of fitting that a big group of Michigan guys are going to run through the streets of Columbus," Pearson said, laughing.

"(Evelyn) had this great laugh. Through everything she had to face on a daily basis, she was always smiling and laughing. That's my lasting memory of her. ... If she can do it with a smile and determination like she did, there's no reason I can't."