|Buffalo Sabres' goaltender Ryan Miller has helped
to establish the Steadfast Foundation, which helps cancer-stricken children and their families.
Ryan Miller highlight video
His cousin, Matt Schoals, had just died from complications from leukemia. With emotions running high, getting the victory that night seemed that much more important. Miller and the Sabres came up big in this one, posting a 6-0 win.
As his teammates rallied around him with hugs and hockey-stick taps, you knew that win was for “Matt Man.”
Miller, 27, hails from a close-knit East Lansing, Mich., family whose cousins, Kelly, Kevin and Kip, also have had NHL careers. He was the protective older cousin of Schoals, a football player at DeWitt High School who didn’t see much playing action, yet was the most-loved kid on the team. Matt had just celebrated his 18th birthday a month prior to his passing.
More than anything, Schoals was looking forward to getting back to normalcy after battling cancer, but he died suddenly after his body rejected a blood transplant -- a common side effect related to bone marrow or blood transplants, more commonly known as graft-versus-host disease.
“He was amazing,” Miller said. “He beat cancer. His body’s reaction to the blood transplant is what killed him. But in the nearly two years of treatment, we almost forgot how sick he really was because when we would see him, he put so much energy into acting normal and putting on the tough face. His battle to reclaim his life was filled with ups and downs, scares and successes. ... He was great.”
With such a hectic lifestyle, Miller makes it a priority to spend his summers with family in East Lansing. Family dinners are a common occurrence two to three times a week, and days cooking on the barbecue are meant for catching up. He said as Schoals was getting older, it was becoming much easier to relate to him. Miller was excited that Schoals was growing up and he enjoyed talking to him.
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“I was really looking forward to killing a keg with him when he turned 21,” Miller said. “We were gonna get a keg of beer on a summer’s day with all the family and sit around until it was gone. But it was more about doing something with the family for Matt, something that we could all share as a celebration of him beating cancer.”
Though that day will never come, Miller remains grateful for the time he did have with Schoals. His young cousin was maturing into a grounded and compassionate young man who was always interested in how others were and never focused on himself too much.
“He was a teddy bear,” Miller said. “We sat around the table at my parents’ house for hours after the funeral talking and the most common thing his friends and relatives said about him was that he always wanted to help others and he made sure to ask about your life and how you were. Nothing was about him.”
It’s fitting that Miller is honoring his cousin by putting others before himself too. And Miller is using his notoriety as a hockey player to reach anyone who will listen.
“I have a short time as someone with a soapbox,” Miller said. “I want to do the right things and I want say the right things.”
Hence, the Steadfast Foundation, which was established by Miller and his father, Dean, in 2006 after first learning of his cousin’s diagnosis. Though Miller and his teammates regularly made hospital visits to cancer-stricken children throughout the hockey season, he never felt as devastated and helpless as he did when Schoals became ill. The Steadfast Foundation is a means to reach out to the cancer-stricken children and teens and their families in an effort to bring a sense of fun and reprieve from the daily battles and tolls taken on cancer-stricken families.
“I had done hospital visits, but it was never so real as when Matt was diagnosed,” Miller said. “He inspired it, but a lot of other young people did as well.
“I want to help with the side that often gets neglected, like the mental side of having and battling a disease. The right environment is an essential complement to medicine and we hope to provide the best chance for a patient to survive by providing psycho-social programs that will help them battle. Things like computers to help them communicate with friends, trips to events to give some mental release -- normalcy is hard to duplicate, but we are striving to give them some.”
Already The Steadfast Foundation has hosted an array of auctions, charitable events, and has recently partnered with Carly’s Club for Kids and Cancer Research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute by becoming the naming sponsor for all psycho-social support programs and activities related to Carly’s Club. In addition, Miller also introduced his new Saves for Cancer program that will raise even more funds for Carly’s Club.
Miller’s teammates will also assist their netminder as he leads them down the catwalk in the second annual Catwalk for Charity event that Miller is hosting in Buffalo on Feb. 2, in which all proceeds will benefit The Steadfast Foundation. Miller will showcase clothing from his trendy shop – The Refinery -- in Lansing, Mich., while he and his teammates strut their stuff on the runway.
“Think Zoolander,” jokes Miller. “Catwalk is fun. No one really expects that we are going to be serious.”
|"His battle to reclaim his life was filled with ups and downs, scares and successes. ... He was great."
-- Ryan Miller on his late cousin, Matt Schoals
The event will also include a gourmet cuisine, live and silent auctions -- with one unique prize being a personally recorded voicemail greeting by Miller himself -- live music and special guest appearances from the Hanson Brothers of the legendary hockey flick, Slap Shot. Given that people are still buzzing over last year’s event -- especially about the over-the-top participation by Sabres forward Andrew Peters -- who knows what’s in store come February.
“Andrew has gone well beyond the call of duty,” Miller teases. “Let’s just say it involved a lot of pink.”
All kidding and fun aside, Miller appreciates his teammates’ sacrifice of a cherished night off to instead help benefit a cause close to his heart. But he’s not surprised by the team support.
“The two go hand-in-hand and we all help each other out whenever we can,” he says. “The guys are what really make the event.”
It is no coincidence that The Steadfast Foundation features an Irish oak tree as its symbol. It’s meaning is a virtue Miller not only lives by, but hopes to instill in sick children and their families during the fight of all fights against cancer.
Moreover, it stands for his cousin Matt.
“It’s a symbol of strength and perseverance -- an age-old symbol of those words,” Miller says. “I didn’t want it to just be Ryan Miller this or that. I wanted meaning and we want to help patients with the battle. We want them to be tough.”
Every time Miller puts his goalie mask on, he is reminded of his cousin’s brave face and courageous battle. It’s inspiring to see the bulldog emblem on the back skull plate -- a compilation of ideas he and Schoals discussed in detail one day in his hospital room. Schoals wanted a bulldog -- English bulldog, Cooper, was a welcome addition to the household -- and Miller liked Spike from Looney Tunes. Just under the bulldog is his nickname, “Matt Man.”
With plenty of late nights up watching Miller’s hockey games from his television set with mom, D’Arcy, this was Miller’s way of letting Schoals know he was rooting for him, too.
“He liked the direction we were going with the foundation,” Miller says. “He was in hospitals for nearly two years and he met a lot of people, especially kids, who were going through what he was going through. He really cared about others and he would have been a perfect ambassador for this foundation.
“He wanted to see the party.”