Nobody knew the pain that lingered inside Donald Marquis’s chest.
Following a hard hit in a football game, the junior at Eureka High School clutched his bruised chest and left the field. The doctors said the sharp stinging would go away, but it didn’t. Months later, the doctors told him the same thing. Again, it persisted.
Then one day Marquis, the ever-vigilant football enthusiast, was watching a movie called Brian’s Song, the true story of a football player who was stricken with terminal cancer. Marquis began noticing similarities between the protagonist’s symptoms and his own condition. Guided by this hunch, Marquis headed to the Kalispell Regional Medical Center with his parents.
There, a CT scan revealed the pain’s source: a tumor on young Marquis’s heart the size of two grapefruits. After a subsequent trip to the Mayo Clinic and later the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, he found out he has acute myeloid leukemia, a relatively rare form of cancer that has spread to his brain and spinal chord.
Today, the 18-year-old is in Seattle undergoing intense bouts of double-dose chemotherapy. His doctors’ reports say: “Diagnosed by a movie.” It’s one of the few light-hearted anecdotes of daily life for the Marquis family.
But his parents and brother have been by his side and Dan Marquis, the father, said this fact alone is a blessing. Dan thanks Doug Betters, a former professional football star and the organizer of the Whitefish Winter Classic. The winter classic is a fundraiser event that raises money annually for families in Northwest Montana that are struggling to pay for medical-related costs for kids not covered by insurance – transportation, housing and specialty equipment are the big ones.
In an interview from Donald’s hospital room in Seattle last week, Dan expressed his gratitude for Betters. He said he and his wife arrived in Seattle without the means – or a plan – for an extended stay in a pricey urban area. Betters and his fundraisers are paying for the Marquis family to stay in Seattle.
“Boy, my heart goes out to them literally,” Dan said. “We would be sleeping in our car, under the bridge, whatever it takes to be with our son. I could never leave my son.”
This year’s Whitefish Winter Classic will be held on March 5-8. The events include a poker night on March 5 in downtown Whitefish; a meet-the-celebrities session on March 6; a snow picnic on March 7 and a dinner with an auction on the evening of March 7, among other events.
Betters established the Whitefish Winter Classic in 1984 following the first of his two Super Bowl appearances with the Miami Dolphins. At the time he was making frequent trips from Florida to his home in Whitefish. He said he loved Whitefish and wanted to use his leverage as a well-known celebrity to do something positive for the community.
Twenty-five years later, he still organizes the annual event. He said more than a dozen families are helped and roughly $50,000 is raised each year.
“This community is very generous – it’s amazing,” Betters said last week. “The first year was the most difficult, inventing the wheel, and now it’s rolling along. It’s been a nice, long ride.”
Each year for the winter classic around 20 professional athletes, University of Montana notables and various other celebrities come to Whitefish to participate in a number of events and help raise money for families in need. Among the 17 celebrities attending this year are former Grizzly stars and current NFL players Tuff Harris and Justin Green, as well as professional bull rider Beau Hill and UM coach Bobby Hauck.
It’s fitting that the Marquis family found Betters in this time of need. The football connection is significant. As Dan says about Donald: “He loves football. He plays with his heart. That’s his life.” Donald has long wanted to play at the University of Montana, like Betters.
Furthermore, Betters understands how abruptly an athlete’s life can change. Following a standout career at UM, Betters became a Pro Bowl defensive end for the Miami Dolphins in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1983 he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Years after his retirement, in 1998, Betters wrecked while skiing on Big Mountain and broke a vertebra, placing him in a wheelchair.
The Marquis family is taking each day as it comes. They know they’ll be in Seattle at least for two months while Donald undergoes treatment, but doctors have told them the timeline could stretch out to two years or more. But Dan said his son knows there is a community of encouragement helping him through these hard times.
“The moral support is just great,” Dan said. “It puts a smile on his face. It shows that there are people out there that do love and do care.”
For more information on the weekend’s events or how to donate, go to www.whitefishwinterclassic.com.
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