Zach Thomann, Sports Editor
Utica College football’s first ever “Believe Bowl” took place last weekend against Ithaca College raising awareness for ill firefighters and underprivileged children in the process. Two children from the Thea Bowman House, as well as three firefighters battling cancer, walked onto the field as honorary captains in their own jerseys to take part in the coin toss. In attendance was Brian McQueen, the founder of “Believe 271,” who looked on as his idea came to life.
Believe 271 was formed to provide financial stability to Volunteer Firefighters as well as EMT’s in Oneida County and Herkimer County who suffer from life-threatening illnesses. The organization is nonprofit which makes the Believe Bowl an important way to raise awareness and donations according to McQueen.
McQueen’s journey to creating the Believe Bowl started on Christmas Eve 2013 when he was diagnosed with non-hodgkin b-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer where white blood cells don’t function properly.
McQueen’s life would change completely in the ensuing six weeks where he spent most of his time in New York City undergoing treatment. McQueen would get on a train in Albany on Sunday and live in a hotel until he came home Friday to do laundry and see his family before he started the process over again.
McQueen said he was fortunate to have insurance that would cover his medical expenses, but the train and hotel expenses came out of his own pocket which totaled nearly $30,000.
Two members of the Barneveld Fire Department, Brian Healey and Brian Palmer, wanted to help McQueen, realizing that he spent almost 40 years as a volunteer in the Whitesboro Fire Department. Their idea was to sell 350 helmet stickers within the area’s fire departments and according to McQueen, upwards of 5,000 have been sold.
McQueen couldn’t believe the positive response that he got and instead of taking the money, he wanted to direct it to other volunteers in need.
“I realized that if I had to travel to New York City, there were probably others that had to do the same thing,” McQueen said.
McQueen beat cancer and Believe 271 was created in 2014 to help others that faced similar issues. Since then, he has raised almost $150,000 in three years.
“To help someone on their worst day and to give back to them is a dream come true,” McQueen said.
Mcqueen took a job as an assistant coach with the Utica College football program focusing on community outreach. He previously knew the head coach, Blaise Faggiano, at St. John Fisher College when Faggiano coached his son.
They both became witness to St. John Fisher’s annual “Courage Bowl” that partners with Camp Good Days, a nonprofit organization that provides thousands of children with cancer the opportunity to come together in a residential camping experience.
“I’ve always wanted a game like that at Utica where we could bring the community together,” Faggiano said. “It isn’t something you can go out and find. We needed the right organization and the perfect time.”
McQueen met with Faggiano in August highlighting the idea of a Believe Bowl, and with sponsorship from New York State Tool’s Matt and Lisa Wilsey, the event was created.
Faggiano took the discussion a step further by including children from the Thea Bowman House in Utica. 30 children were adopted into the program for Friday’s practice and watched the game from the sidelines. Local elementary school students Jordyn Walton and Darkeise Kyles were named the two honorary captains from the Thea Bowman House and were invited to the Thursday luncheon in the Carbone Auditorium at the Utica College campus.
Utica College President Laura Casamento spoke at the luncheon and thanked the NYS Tool, Thea Bowman House and Believe 271 for its services. She presented the honorary captains their own jerseys and members of the football team took the initiative to sit with the Thea Bowman House children.
Senior defensive lineman Alfonzo Whitehurst was happy to be part of the event and support children in need.
“I wanted the kids to know Utica football really cares about them and the things going on in their lives,” Whitehurst said. “Being part of the luncheon and bowl game meant a lot to me because I knew I was part of something greater than myself. I’ve had people help me in the past, so to help bring joy to someone else felt really good.”
Utica was defeated by Ithaca 14-0, but McQueen was still happy with the result.
“We didn’t win the game on the field, but we won off it,” McQueen said. “Utica College showed nothing but a touch of class throughout the experience, and for that, I’m grateful.”
McQueen said the feedback on social media was “absolutely outstanding” and thinks the event will only get bigger and better. He’s glad that the community could support the three firefighters; Chief Neil Sutherland, Assistant Chief Wayne Smoulcey and Chief Anthony Pagliaro, who are battling for their lives. He is excited to be part of the Believe Bowl in the future.
“To know that there will be an event here to say ‘thank you’ to those firefighters battling cancer and encourage kids to succeed means the world to me,” McQueen said.