Ex-Pitt lineman Alex Officer gets army of support in fighting cancer
Qadree Ollison and Alex Officer are two proud western New York men, seemingly built to withstand any bodily trauma inherent to football, trained to swat away adversity and soldier on to the next challenge.
But they’re also human, and those tears in Ollison’s eyes Wednesday were all too real when he spoke of Officer, his friend, travel companion and teammate who has been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
“That’s bigger than football,” said Ollison, a senior running back at Pitt.
Officer, who played 52 games (49 starts) on Pitt’s offensive line from 2013-2017, was trying to make his way in the world of professional football last month when nagging knee pain ended his quest to earn a roster spot with the Kansas City Chiefs.
After he was released by the Chiefs, he returned to Pittsburgh where an MRI revealed a tumor above the left knee near the femur.
Officer’s agent Jordan Byrd said his client will start chemotherapy in a few days, continue it for the next eight to 10 weeks and then undergo surgery to remove the tumor.
Meanwhile, an army of support is forming in Pittsburgh to help Officer in his battle. Officer’s brother Jerome Lewis has started a gofundme page with a goal of raising $100,000. In two days, $39,700 was raised with donations from 513 people.
“Just knowing A.O., he’s going to be fine, he’s going to have a smile on his face every single day,” Ollison said. “He’s not going to let it get him down. He was here for five years, so he probably has 500 brothers, people, staff rooting for him. He’s going to come out stronger on the other side of it. I really believe that.”
Among those joining the fight is former Pitt running back James Conner, who won his own fight with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2016 before resuming his football career and joining the Pittsburgh Steelers last year.
Conner was one of the first of Officer’s teammates to reach out to him.
“I talked to him. He’s doing pretty good, handling it well,” Conner said Wednesday in the Steelers locker room. “I let him know he has a lot of people praying for him, a lot of people behind him, that we’re thinking about him. He’s doing the best that he can. It’s tough for him, but he’s doing all right.”
Since his diagnosis in 2015, Conner often has helped counsel cancer patients.
“I try to reach out when I can, offer support, try to be an inspiration for others,” he said.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi stood in front of the team Wednesday morning before practice to tell them of Officer’s plight.
“Coach said, ‘This is a family here,’ ” senior safety Dennis Briggs said. “Any time one of our brothers is down, coach shares it with us. We took it in, thought about it for a second and we had to move onto our meeting. But that will definitely be in the back of our minds moving forward.”
Ollison built a special bond with Officer, 22, not only running behind his blocks but while sharing rides home. Ollison is from Niagara Falls; Officer from Rochester.
“We western New York people take pride in where we come from,” Ollison said.
Officer’s news was not easy for Ollison to accept.
“Me and A.O are close,” he said. “It makes you really grateful for the opportunity that you have and makes you grateful for everything that God has given you.
“You really realize that no matter how bad you think you have it, there’s someone who has it worse than you somewhere.”
Ollison said several teammates and Narduzzi have tweeted the link to the gofundme page.
“Anything helps. It doesn’t have to be a lot,” he said. “Anything to try to help him and his family get through this.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.