EAST LANSING — As the media entered the Michigan State men’s basketball locker room Thursday night for player interviews following a victory over Illinois, Matt Costello was already on his way out. The senior was in a hurry to meet someone in the players lounge — but was ultimately persuaded to chat with reporters for a few minutes.
Asked about the autographed ball he was holding in his left hand, Costello started to tell the story of MacKale McGuire, an 11-year-old boy fighting cancer, who was waiting outside the locker room. Costello didn’t make it far into the story when his eyes welled up with tears and he asked for a minute to compose himself.
When he returned to the media scrum, the topic changed to that night’s game. Costello gave a few minutes’ worth of answers but his mind appeared to be elsewhere. As soon as there was a break in the questioning, Costello made a beeline for the door.
A few minutes later, he returned with MacKale. Using crutches, MacKale — a sixth-grader from Mackinaw Trail Middle School in Cadillac — made his way across the locker room to Costello’s locker area where he sat in Costello’s chair. His eyes were wide, his smile from ear to ear as he leaned back in the giant chair and soaked it all in.
Costello was just as excited to sit down next to him and show MacKale all of the items in his locker. Then Costello pulled out a giant pair of green shoes — shoes that he had worn in 2012, he told MacKale — and handed them over to him.
“Yours to keep,” he said. As MacKale stared at those shoes in his hands, the conversation between the two of them moved effortlessly through the events of that night’s game.
The locker room chat probably lasted no more than 10 minutes, with MacKale’s father, Mike McGuire, and his grandparents — “Grandma Lucy and Papa” — joining him as well. Their time together included a video chat for a couple minutes on Mike’s smartphone with MacKale’s mother, Marsha McGuire, who hadn’t made the trip downstate.
As they made their way out of the locker room — new green shoes in hands — Costello joked with MacKale that he could probably fit both of his feet in one of the shoes. Costello cleared the way through the crowd and took MacKale and his family to the practice gym and even to coach Tom Izzo’s office before the McGuire family left for the hotel. They spent the night in the Lansing area before heading back to Northern Michigan. Back to Cadillac. Back to the community that made this meeting happen through its kindness and generosity.
MacKale, who also goes by Mac, has hemophilia, a genetic bleeding disorder he has had since birth. When he suffered a leg injury playing soccer last fall, the McGuire family treated it like it always did – family members infused him with blood-clotting factor and had him rest. When his leg didn’t heal, the family went to its hemophilia treatment center in Traverse City to confirm whether he had developed an inhibitor.
“An inhibitor would cause the factor that we inject in him 2-3 times a week ineffective,” Marsha McGuire said.
After two days of testing in two different cities, it was determined that MacKale had not developed an inhibitor — which was good news in his fight against hemophilia — but he did have a mass on his tibia. That was the bad news.
MacKale and his family went to the Helen Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids the next day, Sept. 30, for an MRI. That was followed by a biopsy Oct. 1 and pathology tests Oct. 2.
The diagnosis came back and wasn’t good: osteosarcoma.
MacKale had cancer.
The news hit the McGuire family hard – not only did MacKale have hemophilia, now he had cancer as well. But the family moved quickly. Within a week, the family had met with the oncologist, laid out what the next 9-12 months would look like and started treatment.
Chemotherapy started immediately. The plan called for 11 weeks of chemotherapy followed by surgery on his leg. After the leg surgery, MacKale will have another 4-5 months of chemo ahead of him.
As Marsha wrote on her family blog at mackalesjourney.blogspot.com: “the road will be hard, but I still know with all certainty that God is good and God is bigger than you and I.”
The McGuire family pulled together and walked this road hand in hand. MacKale was the one who explained it all to his two younger brothers.
He was calm and matter of fact.
“Chemo is going to make my hair fall out,” he told them, according to the family blog.
As the weeks went by, Marsha said the treatment affected MacKale. He didn’t eat much. He was miserable. Fever. Vomiting. The unending nausea resulted in him carrying around a pink bucket everywhere he went.
“It’s not fun and it’s not pretty watching your active, happy-go-lucky 11-year-old slowly wither away, because he won’t eat,” Marsha wrote in her blog.
MacKale’s hemophilia added an additional layer of complication. His symptoms were hard to categorize – was his 45-minute nose bleed a hemophilia issue? Or an oncology thing? He tried to make it to school when he could. When he wasn’t able to go, he continued to distract himself with sports. He watched sports on television. He read about sports in magazines. It was a way for him to occupy his mind during this ordeal.
On Oct. 17 – the day of the epic Michigan State-Michigan football game – MacKale was in the hospital, watching the game with his mom.
“When Mac is watching MSU play, the entire floor knows,” Marsha said. “The nurses are constantly in the room checking the score. That day the child life specialists had come around and handed out little posters – if you were an MSU or Michigan fan you’d post it on your door. They try to make it fun.”
Mac was one of countless MSU fans who were “so bummed” with the apparent outcome that they didn’t want to watch the last few seconds. He turned the channel.
“We heard the nurses screaming at him ‘Mac turn it back!’” Marsha said. He saw the replay, of course, and learned a lesson in the process.
“I learned my lesson!” MacKale said. “I’ll never think it’s over until it’s over again.”
Mac’s staff learned that they needed to schedule testing around MSU athletic events. When the Spartans were playing Iowa for the Big Ten football championship, the nurses tried to take his blood pressure readings with just a few minutes left in the game.
It was 150 over 93. They came back later.
MacKale has even convinced the MRI techs to turn on MSU basketball games during his study, promising them that he would sit still for it.
At the end of October, when MacKale’s hair did indeed start falling out, the community support was there in full fledge. Family members, teammates and friends all shaved their head – nearly three dozen people when it was all said and done.
It didn’t need to be said. Their actions proved it: They were all in this together.
And it didn’t stop there. As detailed on Marsha’s blog, in early December, the varsity basketball coach for the Cadillac Vikings, Ryan Benzenberg, contacted Marsha and invited MacKale to be an honorary captain for the team. During the game Dec. 15, the entire Cadillac basketball program – from the freshman team to the varsity team – wore orange Team MacKale shirts as warm-up jerseys. The opponent on the court that night, Ogemaw Heights, joined in and wore the shirts as well. MacKale attended the captains’ meeting before the game. He sat on the end of the bench with his dad and a brother. Every time a Vikings player entered the game, the player would nod to MacKale. Or tap his hat. Or a fist bump.
After the game, MacKale joined the team in the locker room for the postgame debrief. When he came out of the locker room, his mom was waiting for him — with a new friend, Jennifer Costello, who was at the game to watch her nephew play. Jennifer had someone on the phone who wanted to video chat with MacKale – her son, Matt.
MacKale recognized the name right away.
“Yeah, I know him. He’s number 10,” he said, according to Marsha in the blog.
“My cousins go to Cadillac — the Brookses — and they just texted me, ‘Hey, there’s this Michigan State fan and we’re putting on a thing for him at our high school game. Do you want to talk to him?” I was like, yeah,” Costello said after basketball practice Tuesday.
After that video chat, Costello reached out to his aunt for MacKale’s dad’s phone number. Although they had yet to meet, Costello and Mac were frequently sending text messages back and forth.
“I thank the Lord for putting me in that position — and giving me somebody like MacKale that I can talk to.” Costello said. “To try to give me purpose. We play a silly game with a ball and some hoops — and he’s fighting for his life. It just puts things in perspective.”
Costello told Mac that he would show his texts to his teammates before the games as a way to motivate the team.
These text messages helped Mac make it through a rough December. Mac spent a lot of time in isolation due to a lingering virus. He was weak and miserable and couldn’t go to church or school.
“Just trying to be a big brother, because he’s the oldest,” Costello said. “Just trying to help him out the best I can.”
Marsha said: “We really believe that Matt has been that special angel that God has sent us to distract MacKale from the difficulties of chemo. And bring a smile to his face when nothing else would.”
Good news came on Christmas Day. When MacKale found out that he was going to an MSU basketball game with his grandparents, he was thrilled. The McGuires arrived early and watched the game from the seventh row, according to the family blog.
As Mac said in his own post on the family blog: “Of course, I was most excited to see my friend Matt play. He had a really good game . . . 14 rebounds and 9 points. It was exciting every time he made a shot, rebound or block.”
After home games, the Michigan State basketball players take a lap around the court, high-fiving fans and sometimes even posing for pictures. After the Illinois game, Mac made his way down to the front row, hoping to meet Costello and say hello. When Costello recognized Mac, he leaned over and gave him a big hug, according to the family blog.
Costello’s dad took Mac into the family waiting room where he met a few other players – including Gavin Schilling, Bryn Forbes and Deyonta Davis – while he was waiting to meet up with Matt Costello.
After his evening came to an end, MacKale crashed in the bed in his hotel room, exhausted but excited. Over the next couple days, his mom helped him write about his experiences on their blog.
Not only had his wish came true, but his mom’s did as well.
“I’ve wanted to find young men for him to emulate – that are worthy to be looked up to,” Marsha said. “(Matt is) a busy college student with a lot going on after all, but seeing those brief glimpses of delight from MacKale when he’d been so sick… I am so grateful that God chose Matt for MacKale.”