Saints punter Morstead puts energy into helping cancer patients, children

It was the morning after the Saints defeated the Falcons in Atlanta on Nov. 21 when punter Thomas Morstead saw the call for help on Facebook.

The family of Madison “Madi” Adams — a 13-year-old girl he’d recently met — needed money fast. Madi was several months into a battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and traditional chemotherapy wasn’t wiping out the cancerous blood cells in her bone marrow.

She was opting for a trial chemotherapy that had been approved for use in adults but not children. If that didn’t work, doctors would have to quickly replace her bone marrow with some from a healthy donor to strengthen her chances of surviving the disease.

Madi’s family’s insurance couldn’t cover the full cost of the transplant because none of her immediate relatives were a match for her bone marrow. It also wouldn’t cover any of the medications she’d need after the procedure, so her parents went on social media and pleaded for help from family members, friends, acquaintances and anyone else.

One of the people the message reached was Morstead. He was driving to Tiger Stadium for an LSU football game when he asked his wife, Lauren, to take his phone and type out the following:

“I need everyone’s help today. My friend Madi ... is suffering from pediatric cancer. She is in need of a bone marrow transplant and time is not on her side.”

Morstead explained Madi’s situation to the 30,000 or so supporting his Facebook page. He said they could save Madi’s life if all of them handed over just $1 at a page set up for the girl.

If the money was raised by that weekend, Morstead promised he’d give away one of his jerseys, a signed pair of cleats and two tickets to the Dec. 8 home game against the Carolina Panthers to random donors.

“Whether you can donate or not, please ... spread the word,” Morstead said.

Lauren hit “post.”

‘What You Give Will Grow’

Now in his fifth season with New Orleans, Morstead’s punting skills landed him in the 2012 Pro Bowl, though he is perhaps best known to Saints fans for booting a successful onsides kick to help the team win Super Bowl XLIV.

He’s obsessive about his craft and can instantly recite any statistics that are relevant to his job.

On the Saints’ sideline, Morstead resembles a caged tiger, pacing constantly and warming up for whenever the team needs him.

Though he’s intense, Morstead is a kind-hearted guy.

For example, against Carolina on Dec. 8, Morstead chased down the Panthers’ Ted Ginn Jr., grabbing him by the facemask and possibly preventing him from returning a punt 79 yards for a touchdown.

Morstead was penalized and fined $7,875. He promptly logged onto Facebook, apologized to Ginn for the foul and vowed to punt better.

Away from the gridiron, his benevolence is even more evident. He spends much of his free time trying to help two kinds of people: cancer patients and children.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, Morstead still remembers how frightened he was when he was a 14-year-old high school freshman in Houston and was told his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I cried,” he said. “I hear ‘cancer,’ and I’m thinking, ‘My mom is going to die.’”

Isobel Morstead didn’t die. She underwent treatment and has been in remission for years. She has attended every home and away Saints game with Thomas’ father, John, ever since New Orleans drafted their son.

Inspired by how his mother nobly stared down a deadly illness, and having grown up with parents who never left his side, Morstead resolved to start his own initiative, one that would both aid cancer patients and give whatever sense of family it could to kids who lacked that.

Morstead grew out his hair and cut it when it reached his shoulders, giving the locks to an organization that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair, usually due to chemotherapy. He raffled off a trip to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. He raffled off packages consisting of two tickets to each Saints home game this year as well as accompanying hotel accommodations.

The proceeds have benefitted efforts that either provide care for cancer patients or seek a cure for the disease. And they have allowed Morstead to host birthday parties for children who never had any before they ended up in foster care.

He meets those children through the Jefferson Parish branch of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, which specializes in protecting the rights of abused or neglected minors.

“I can’t imagine growing up without my parents or not having people that always supported me or loved me,” Morstead said. “Some of these kids have never had a birthday before. They’ve never been celebrated. They’ve never blown out candles on a cake, so that was one of the things we started getting into.”

He named his initiative “What You Give Will Grow.” That’s to honor a phrase often repeated by a special-teams coach he played for in college at Southern Methodist University, Frank Gansz Sr., who died at the age of 70 the day after the Saints drafted Morstead.

“He’d tell us, ‘What you give will grow. What you keep, you’ll lose,’” Morstead said.

‘Had to stay brave’

In the months before she met Morstead, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Madi competed in beauty pageants.

Her stepdad, Jason Meadows, had taught her how to fire guns like a true marksman. She studied at Madisonville Junior High School, pursuing a dream of becoming a forensic scientist, a U.S. Marine — or better yet, a forensic scientist for the U.S. Marines.

“Her perfect day would be to get up, put a cute dress on, have a matching bow and socks and purse — and go outside and dig in the mud for bugs,” said Christy Adams, Madi’s mom.

Then, while swimming in a pool this summer, Madi felt her knee pop. She was evaluated by a pediatrician, who referred her to an orthopedist.

But the pain was excruciating as she waited for her orthopedic appointment to come around. Early one morning, she realized she couldn’t stand on her leg, so she hobbled over to her mom’s room.

Christy rushed her daughter to the emergency room, but X-rays didn’t reveal anything. An orthopedist took more X-rays, didn’t spot a reason for the pain and ordered up an MRI for a few days later.

Madi broke into a severe fever before she made it to the MRI, so her mom brought her to the ER again.

Staff members subjected Madi to a battery of tests. On July 2, they diagnosed her with leukemia. And because of her age, she was considered high risk.

Madi admits it frightened her to find out she had cancer and required chemotherapy, which would ravage her immune system and cause her hair to fall out. But then she thought about her mom; her stepdad; her sisters, 1-year-old Baylee and Brittani, 12; and her brother, Kyle, 21.

“I knew I had to stay brave for my family,” she said. “If I didn’t, it’d just be a lot more pressure on them. And I knew I could stay brave — especially if it was for my family.”

‘Fight Like a Girl’

A family friend introduced Madi to Morstead at Children’s Hospital in September.

Madi, petite at 5-foot-1, regaled Morstead — towering at 6-foot-4 — with stories about her beauty pageants and trips to the gun range. She shared pictures of herself either in ball gowns or posing with weapons that were as big as she was.

Somehow, it came up that Morstead was born cross-eyed and had surgery to correct the condition. What a coincidence, Madi said — she crossed her eyes all the time when making silly faces at her sister!

The two laughed about that. Christy Adams photographed Madi and Morstead together, and they each crossed their eyes for the picture.

Morstead gave Madi a signed jersey of his, which she wears to watch Saints games. She gave him an orange T-shirt which has a picture of her holding her thumbs up and sticking her tongue out above and below the words “Team Madi” and “Fight Like a Girl.”

As Morstead recalls it, “I’m meeting with her, and she’s getting chemo dripped into her, ... and she’s just all smiles. Talk about someone who’s not feeling sorry for (herself) ... in the face of something that’s super scary.”

Madi said, “I thought it was actually kind of crazy that I got to hang out with a Saints player.”

Morstead wouldn’t be the only one. He soon returned with Saints kicker and avid outdoorsman Garrett Hartley. Morstead barely got a word in as Hartley and Madi talked about guns and hunting, which she hopes to do for the first time ever in January.

Then, weakened by the chemo, Madi contracted pneumonia and spent the entire month of October hospitalized. She was in intensive care for 18 days and intubated for 11.

Morstead recorded a video for Madi of himself and Hartley after they boarded their flight to the Saints’ Oct. 6 game in Chicago. They urged Madi to stay strong, and they told her they were thinking about her.

Borrowing the motto of former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who’s battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and runs a foundation dedicated to combating the disease, they told her, “No white flags!”

After New Orleans beat the Bears, Hartley brought Madi a game ball that he, Morstead, Sean Payton, Drew Brees and other Saints signed.

“To have the game ball was really cool,” Madi said, beaming. “I love it.”

‘A special place’

Morstead’s post on Facebook about the bone marrow transplant generated $10,000 for Madi within a few hours. By the third day, about 1,000 people had forked over most of the money that Morstead sought for Madi’s family.

Madi is expecting to find out on Monday whether the trial chemo she agreed to take has been effective. If it is, she’ll avoid the marrow transplant.

If the procedure is necessary, more than $27,800 is there for Madi to get it done immediately.

Morstead is aware that some cynics might say that, as a professional football player, he could afford to simply pick up the expenses of her bone marrow transplant — someone on his Facebook page already has. And he knows Madi isn’t the only cancer patient out there who could use donations.

It’s just he connected with Madi. And he thought it was best for him to utilize his public platform as a pro football player to offer his supporters a chance to truly help someone.

“We had a couple of people who donated $500 or $1,000, but the majority of people who went on gave ($1 or) five bucks,” Morstead said. “How cool is that, to make the decision to give to a complete stranger?

“When (Madi) beats this, ... anybody that gave even $1, the feeling they’re going to get having done that, having helped get her the stuff she needs, that’s going to be so awesome.”

Madi’s stepdad speaks for the whole family when he says they are forever grateful for whatever led Morstead and his fans into their lives.

“It was a great load off my shoulders to stop worrying about, ‘Where am I going to get $25,000 in the next few Weeks?’ ” said Jason Meadows, who’s working in construction and offshore as Madi tries to get healthy. “Those guys will always have a special place in our heart and in our home.”