WKU volleyball head coach Travis Hudson was passing out t-shirts with his team at a WKU basketball game last weekend in support of former player Alyssa Cavanaugh’s continued battle with leukemia when an idea came to him.
“As I watched people walk in this building, I just had this overwhelming feeling in my heart that there’s 20,000 of those people walking around campus, and it’s so easy to find out if you’re a match,” Hudson said. “It’s so simple.”
Thinking of the multitude of people on this campus with the chance to save Cavanaugh’s life or someone else’s on the donor registry list, Hudson said he began trying to think of a way to shake the student body. He thought of promotions and fundraisers he’d seen before, half-court shots to win a semester’s tuition at basketball games. Then it hit him.
“If anybody on this campus — if any student on this campus who will take five minutes to register, and it comes back, and they happen to be the match for Alyssa Cavanaugh, their next semester of tuition on the Hill is on me,” Hudson said. “That sounds like a pretty good gig. I was a poor college student at one time.”
Hudson said, in his heart, he knows this is what he wants to do. If a WKU student is a match and goes through the donation process, they'll get their next semester of tuition paid for. Realizing the time involved in this process, Hudson ensured if the student is no longer still on campus when the match comes back, he will pick up the tab for the last semester the student was at WKU.
“I don’t know if that person is on this campus, but I know if they are and I walk by them every day, I want to know they’re gonna be there for Alyssa,” Hudson said.
Born in Louisville, Cavanaugh led her high school to four straight state titles before coming to WKU in 2014. The Conference USA Freshman of the Year in her first season, Cavanaugh became the first All-American in the program’s history and was a two-time C-USA Player of the Year. She finished her career with the second-most kills in program history and finished her senior season with the second-best hitting percentage in the country.
Hudson summed up his former player’s time at WKU with one word: struggle. As a coach, Hudson said he doesn’t coach for All-Americans or to win games, but to try and help young kids. When Cavanaugh first arrived on the Hill, her coach said she wasn’t perfect and that her first few years on campus involved a real struggle at times.
“To see what she turned herself into, again, forget about the volleyball, to see what she turned herself into as a human being is one of my favorite stories of my entire coaching career,” Hudson said. “She’s a strong, confident young woman who came here thinking about herself and walked away from here impacting everyone around her and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Hudson said the sickening feeling he felt in the pit of his stomach upon first hearing about Cavanaugh’s diagnosis in early September has never left him.
“You’re talking about a young lady that’s just larger than life,” Hudson said. “Just to see where she was at in her life and what she had ahead of her. This was something that stopped her and everyone in her world in their tracks.”
Driving up to visit Cavanaugh in the hospital for the first time after learning of her diagnosis, Hudson said he coached himself up the whole way, knowing he can be an emotional person. Hudson said his preparation lasted four words before his voice began to crack and his former player, laying in a hospital bed, stopped him.
“She said we’re not doing that,” Hudson said. “She’s just had this determination about her, this positivity about her that’s really been…I went up there to lift her spirits and she ended up lifting mine.”
Hudson said he doesn’t believe anything happens by accident. When he did finally manage to muster his voice again in the hospital room, he told Cavanaugh that he’d always wondered, throughout her time as a player, why she had been so stubborn. Now he knew.
“She fought me throughout her career here,” Hudson said. “She was so stubborn, and now I know it’s gonna be the same stubbornness, that same fight that girl has deep down inside her, that will be why she ends up winning this.”
It’s this willingness to fight when knocked back that Hudson said separates people. Hudson said he has always been the type of person to get back up and joked that it might be his only talent.
“I’m not an overly talented person,” Hudson said. “I’m not an overly talented coach. But I’m a person that refuses to say no, refuses to stay down. There’s no bump in the road that’s too big. We’ll beat this thing.”
Hudson is no stranger to battles and hardships of cancer, being a melanoma survivor himself. On Easter weekend this past year, Hudson suffered a life-threatening heart attack that the coach said has impacted his decision to offer this scholarship.
“I spent my life trying to be the helper, but in a matter of minutes, I was laying on the other of side of that thing, and in a hospital bed, and my life was in the hands of the human beings around me,” Hudson said. “It’s a pretty surreal deal and I think it’s really been impactful.”
WKU athletics associate director of media relations Jessica Leifheit said that hearing about Hudson’s offer came with little surprise to those that work with him.
“You almost expect it,” Leifheit said. “This is the kind of person Travis is. It’s not just about winning matches, winning volleyball games for him. It’s about making sure these student athletes are successful and they’re set up to have great lives after WKU.”
Leifheit said his support expands beyond his own team, saying Hudson’s support reaches across other teams and everyone else on campus.Hudson has been a great resource for the university, Leifheit said.
To begin the process of finding a bone marrow donor for Cavanaugh, doctors first started by testing her family for potential matches although 7 out of 10 patients do not find a match within their family, according to Be The Match’s website. The Cavanaugh family, in partnership with WKU Athletics and Be The Match, then moved to signed up donors across four different WKU sporting events in four days last week.
Hudson said he now wants to take the search campus-wide, and if the match isn’t found there, he’ll keep going.
“We’ll take it city-wide,” Hudson said. “We’ll take it across every school in Conference USA. I don’t know where we’ll stop. When someone tells me there’s a match out there for her, and it’s a matter of finding it, what else do you need to know? It’s just digging in and getting people to sign up until you find that person.”
Students can sign up at Be the Match’s website to be added into the registry or scan the QR code found in the paper with their phone. Once entered into the registry, the person will receive a swab kit in the mail, swab their cheek, and return the kit and sample.
“In times like this, I think we see there is a strength here that maybe doesn’t exist everywhere else,” Hudson said. “I think this is when we shine our brightest.”
Reporter Casey McCarthy can be reached at 270-745-6291 and firstname.lastname@example.org