THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

For receiver, better to give

Harvard’s Iannuzzi manages to brighten someone’s day

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 24, 2010

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Just in time for Christmas . . .

Geoff Stearns, Harvard ’82, had been to 33 consecutive Harvard-Yale games. There would have to be a very good reason for him not extending the streak to 34, and there was: He was home with his 23-year-old daughter, Ashley, who had just learned that a large tumor that had been removed from her midsection, and which had caused her to lose her ovary, was cancerous. She would have to undergo chemotherapy.

Stearns’s parents, brother, and brother-in-law represented the family interests at the game, while Stearns and his wife, Lisa, remained home in Connecticut to watch the game on television with Ashley. At the pregame tailgate, his sister, Heather Scozzarella, made up a “We Love You, Ashley’’ sign they hoped would be shown on TV. The sign caught the eye of a young man who asked what the sign was about.

His name was Dan Reid, and he explained he was one of a 40-member party who had come to the game from Vancouver, British Columbia, to support their buddy, who played on the Harvard team.

“Watch No. 87,’’ Reid told Scozzarella. “He’s going to have a huge game.’’

No. 87 was Marco Iannuzzi, who would be on the receiving end of a 46-yard flea-flicker that set up Harvard’s first touchdown, and who then returned the second half kickoff 84 yards to tie the game at 14-14 after Yale had dominated the first half. Marco was indeed the offensive spark plug in Harvard’s 28-21 victory, and he was given the game ball.

Heather Scozzarella and Dan Reid had exchanged e-mail addresses, but Scozzarella figured she’d heard the last of the Canadian.

Not so.

A while later a shipment arrived at the Stearns household. It was a hockey stick for Ashley, signed by the entire Calgary University squad. Very nice. But that was just the appetizer.

The next package arriving at the Stearns manse was even more special. It was the game ball. I mean, it really was the game ball from The Game. Marco Iannuzzi, who had never laid eyes on Ashley Stearns, had given up his game ball. He had also sent the gloves he had worn during The Game, apologizing because they were a “little sweaty.’’

“I had missed my first game in 33 years, but suddenly a Harvard/Yale game ball was in my house,’’ marvels Geoff Stearns. “My daughter had support and prayers from someone she had only seen compete, but had never met.’’

Marco Iannuzzi is not your standard Harvard man. He got into Harvard on his third attempt. He actually worked — worked! — a real job, managing an establishment called “Joey’s Global Grill & Lounge’’ in Edmonton, Alberta. He went to prep school after that. He may be the most appreciative Harvard man you’ll ever meet. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that he would react to Ashley Stearns’s situation the way he did.

He says giving up the game ball from The Game was not a difficult decision.

“I don’t think so,’’ he explains. “I don’t think so at all. Getting the game ball was what mattered. But I don’t need the game ball sitting on my wall in order to know I had it. If it would brighten up someone else’s life, why not? To me, it was a no-brainer. I think anyone on my team would have done that. I think every Harvard man of the last hundred years might also have done the same thing.’’

Some of us might differ, Marco. Surely, the Stearns family doesn’t see it that way.

“He really has a selfless attitude about the whole thing,’’ agrees Ashley Stearns. “It’s amazing to be physically holding the game ball from such an important game. When it first happened, I needed time to absorb everything. But once I thought about it, the whole thing was overwhelming. It’s amazing to get this kind of support from complete strangers. It shows the power of good people out there. There are a lot of amazing people out there.’’

Ashley Stearns is traveling regularly to famed Sloan-Kettering in New York City for treatment. It’s the same chemo protocol that Lance Armstrong had when he was hit with testicular cancer. She has finished Armstrong’s first book and is into the second.

“My attitude is the same as his was,’’ she says. “He said he didn’t simply want to get healthy to resume a normal life; he wanted to get healthy and live a better life. And that’s my goal.’’

Ashley will compete, for sure. She ran the 200, 400, and 4 x 400 at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and is drawing on that spirit as she battles the cancer.

That’s another reason she is so blown away by what Marco Iannuzzi has done for her.

“I was a runner,’’ she says, “and I know if I had won a major award in my college days it would not have been easy for me to give it up, for any reason.’’

Even a totally serious story involving a cancer patient can be laced with a bit of whimsy.

“When the doctor took out the tumor,’’ says Geoff Stearns, “he actually said, ‘It was the size of a football.’ ’’

Merry Christmas, Ashley.

Merry Christmas, Marco.

Merry Christmas, Dan Reid.

Maybe there’s hope for this world, after all.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.