PHOTO COURTESY OF VIRGINIA TECH ATHLETICS

Mary Griffin made her first collegiate start last year against Brown. Days later, the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Months later, being back on the lacrosse field might have saved her life.

Right Place. Right Time. Right Person


Three days after testing positive for COVID-19 and going into isolation, Mary Griffin found out she had cancer. On a Zoom call. Hours from home. At just 19 years old.

A sophomore at Virginia Tech, Griffin was outside of her apartment in Blacksburg, Va., last fall when she took the call. Three hundred miles away in Baltimore, her mother, Kelly, was also on the line. Kelly had planned to be there in person to find out the results from a biopsy done the week before, but Griffin’s positive test for COVID kept her away.

No one was expecting the news they received. A doctor informed the family that the tumor they found on Griffin's pancreas was cancerous.

“I just wanted to hug her,” Kelly Griffin said. “She was being the stronger one. I wanted to get in the car and drive down there and I couldn’t. I told my husband, ‘I don’t care, I want to get her [and bring her home]’ and he said, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t drive in a car with her for five hours.’”

The mind works in mysterious ways in times of stress. Mary Griffin’s initial reaction was to think about losing her hair, but her attention quickly turned to her mother.

“Looking at my mom on a phone screen, being told that her youngest child has cancer, that was the hardest,” she said. “I told her, ‘I promise you I’m OK.’ I didn’t even talk about myself. My main concern was her being upset. It was so hard for her to hear. It hurt my heart.”

When Mary Griffin took the call, standing a socially-distant six feet away from her was the person who may have saved her life — Anne Bryan, an athletic trainer at Virginia Tech.
 


"Looking at my mom on a phone screen, being told that her youngest child has cancer, that was the hardest...It hurt my heart." — Mary Griffin


Mary Griffin was 6 years old when she started playing lacrosse. She didn’t have much choice. Her older siblings — Claire, Maggie, Jack and Grace — all played the sport and her mom coached. A competitive mindset quickly formed.

“Mary was very, very shy when she was really little,” Kelly Griffin said. “But she was also really competitive with her siblings. If they were doing something she couldn’t do, she would get so frustrated. She’d say, ‘I’m not playing with you anymore’ and walk away.”

Mary Griffin quickly broke out of her shyness and developed a strong independent streak. Once, when they were at a cookout, a woman walked over to Kelly with Mary in tow and asked if she was her daughter. Mary had gone up to the woman, a stranger, and asked her to help her get some food. The woman didn’t want to feed her without knowing if it was OK with her mother.

That independence is partly how she ended up at Virginia Tech.

Griffin’s sister Grace, just two years older, was the sibling she followed most closely. One of the top recruits in the country, Grace Griffin committed to Maryland early on. She started for the Terps as a freshman in 2018 and won a national championship the following season, Mary’s senior year of high school.

“I saw her getting recruited, playing competitively and I wanted something similar,” Mary Griffin said.

Griffin likely could have followed her sister to Maryland, but she wanted to do her own thing. Her father, John, had a friend whose daughter had played for John Sung at Winthrop and had a good experience. When Sung was hired by Virginia Tech after the 2016 season, her dad suggested she look there.

Nestled in the picturesque New River Valley, next to the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountain ranges in Southwest Virginia, one of Virginia Tech’s popular Snapchat filters simply says, “This is Home.”

Griffin agreed.

“The second you walk on campus, when you dream of going to college, Virginia Tech is that college,” she said. “It has it all. You’re getting a great education, competitive sports, a football school, a huge campus. It really is the whole package.”

Griffin trained relentlessly the summer before her freshman year, both with her sister, Grace, and former Maryland and current Team USA star defender Alice Mercer. But when the 2020 season started, she found herself out of the starting lineup and on the bench, a place she had rarely seen in her sports career.

Griffin kept working, seeing occasional playing time. When the Hokies met Syracuse, a red card to another defender gave her a chance to show her progress. She played most of the game and earned a start for the next contest against Brown. Before another game could be played, the season was over due to start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mary was one of those kids where COVID really hurt her development,” Sung said. “We were getting into the meat of the season, and for the freshmen, sometimes it takes them a bit to get their feet underneath them. She got her first start at Brown, played most of our game against Syracuse. She was ready to roll.”

The end of the season was also the beginning of an unfortunate streak for Griffin and her family due to the pandemic. The children all returned home from their respective schools, only to have a tall pine tree fall and smash their brother Jack’s car. Both parents were laid off from their jobs. The family dog went through surgery for cancer but ultimately had to be put down.

Little things, too. Mary Griffin hated the haircut her mother gave her. But this is a family that laughs and jokes through the toughest times. Kelly Griffin said her younger daughter, true to form, compiled a list of “crappy” things that happened because of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it was only about to get tougher.








Mary Griffin spent last summer getting ready for this season. Not a fan of the heat, she’d get up early to run. She did variations of Virginia Tech’s run test. Sometimes she used Grace’s run test at Maryland. She was ready.

“I was really excited,” Mary Griffin said. “I know we have a lot of depth on our defense, and I was ready to compete. I was ready to put in all of the hard work. Honestly, I felt rejuvenated. Quarantine was so long, but it was kind of nice to get that mental reset.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, fall practice was a little different for the Hokies. Things moved slower than normal. Sung was just happy to have the team together again.

During a series of sprints in a Monday conditioning workout, Mary started to feel a pain in her side.

“I was telling myself to push through it, but on the third one, I said, ‘Absolutely not’ and ran over to Anne,” Mary Griffin said.

“There were definitely no red flags,” said Bryan, the team’s athletic trainer. “She was crushing the conditioning until she had the pain. She wanted to continue, but I told her to please sit down, and I kind of monitored her. She is a really tough kid, but she was visibly in immense pain. That was one of the first triggers something big had happened.”

It didn’t appear to be cramping. There was nothing to suggest a muscular injury. Griffin’s pain eventually lessened, but it was not completely gone. Bryan didn’t feel comfortable just letting it go, so she consulted with the school’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mark Rogers, and they decided to do an abdominal scan as a precaution.

After a practice later that week, Griffin and Bryan sat down with Rogers to go over the results.

“In the doctor’s office, I asked Anne, ‘Am I going die?’ expecting her to laugh,” Mary Griffin said. “She didn’t laugh. The doctor told me they found a tumor on my left side. The doctor saw every range of emotion within 30 seconds. I freaked out. Is it cancer? Then I made a joke. Then I got angry.”

The tumor was roughly the size of a lacrosse ball. Griffin immediately reached out to her mother but couldn’t connect with her. Kelly Griffin, herself a former athletic trainer, had just started a new job working as a physical therapist and didn’t have her phone on her. Mary Griffin sent a text to the family group chat. She called her sister, Maggie. She finally connected with her mother a couple of hours later, but Kelly Griffin wasn’t too concerned.

“I told Mary anything that size can’t be cancer,” Kelly Griffin said. “You’d have symptoms.”

A biopsy was scheduled for the next week but was delayed for a pre-surgical COVID test that turned out to be positive. Mary Griffin eventually got the biopsy, and soon after came the call no one expected.

“You just never know where life is going to take you,” Kelly Griffin said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined one of my kids would have cancer.”

Being in isolation due to her COVID test result made everything harder.

“That was the longest 10 days of my life,” Mary Griffin said. “I had Facetime calls, text after text, but I was alone in my room. It was a crazy time.”

Tests ultimately revealed a neuroendocrine tumor (NET) on Griffin’s pancreas, unusual for someone her age. The family spent the next few weeks researching the disease and trying to determine the appropriate medical steps. The emotional toll was rough enough, but so were the financial challenges. After Mary’s parents both lost their jobs, they had gone on Medicaid.

The lacrosse community stepped up.

Rebecca New, the mother of another Virginia Tech player, reached out to Kelly to start a GoFundMe page to help the family with their medical expenses.

“I had never met this woman, and she said, ‘I’m sorry if I’m being too forward,’” a grateful Kelly Griffin recalled. “I told her I’d take any help I can get.”

The donations stared pouring in.

“Our parents asked if they could start a GoFundMe page,” Sung said. “This was on a Friday night, and I figured I could wait until Monday to talk to our compliance guys. By Saturday night, it was over $30,000, and I thought, ‘I guess I need to call my compliance guy.’ The lacrosse world really showed up for the Griffin family — other ACC coaches, club coaches, families that played against her. It was mind-blowing.”

“When the contributions started coming in, it was just overwhelming,” Kelly Griffin said. “I couldn’t look at it. My mother would ask, ‘Have you looked at them?’ and I told her, ‘I can’t. It just makes me cry.’ The lacrosse community is an amazing group of people. They’ve been so supportive. It was probably the most amazing experience in my life.”

Beyond the dollars, it was a reminder of how much others care.

“Everyone’s been affected by cancer in some way,” Mary Griffin said. “When it’s a friend, you obviously send a text or well wishes. I love reaching out to people in a time of need. It’s hard to reverse that and be on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone offered me so much love and support, and what really opened that up was the GoFundMe page.

“It was a Virginia Tech [football] gameday, and I was excited to get to watch. I looked down at my phone and there were 80 text messages, 50 DMs. I checked Instagram, and it was all being reposted. I was so uncomfortable. I was with my teammates and friends and everyone’s offering so much help, and I didn’t want all that attention.”

But Griffin quickly realized the attention came from a place of love.

“Once that started going viral, people wanted to offer love and support, so let them,” she said. “I didn’t realize how many people cared about me until I was faced with this.”




PHOTO COURTESY OF VIRGINIA TECH ATHLETICS

Mary Griffin was all smiles during a practice at Virginia Tech last spring. She attacked her cancer diagnosis with the same upbeat attitude. "She’s just such a positive, great person," said her coach John Sung.


Griffin underwent surgery Nov. 11 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors successfully removed the tumor, her spleen and 40 percent of her pancreas. The cancer had not spread to her stomach or any other organs. Doctors do not anticipate any further treatment will be needed, just continued scans to monitor the situation.

It’s a stunning result, but what wasn’t stunning was the way Griffin accepted this challenge.

“Mary just has this sense of when something needs to get done, she gets it done,” John Griffin said. “She’ll say, ‘This is a speed bump in my life.’ That’s pretty much how she’s been through this whole thing. ‘We’re going through this, we’re not going around this.’ It’s a good thing she’s had that attitude.”

“I was waiting for that moment of her breaking down, that she has cancer. ‘Why can’t I play?’” Sung said. “I’m sure that was happening on the inside, but on the outside to her teammates, she looked so strong. She’s just such a positive, great person. She handled it like no one else could have handled it. She never broke down. She never did.”

Even before the surgery, Griffin’s lively spirit and sense of humor were on full display. One of the doctors explained his role in the surgery and asked if she had any questions. She said, “I'm pretty sure you guys know what you are doing and all I really have to do is sleep through the whole thing.”

But Griffin’s family knows how fortunate they are.

“Honestly, if she wasn’t playing lacrosse, I don’t think the outcome would have been as positive as it looks like it’s going to be,” Kelly Griffin said. “Her symptoms would have been so vague. It wouldn’t have been detected as early as it was. I just don’t think we would have found it. The doctor said it was probably growing undetected for a few years, but it was at a really pivotal stage. If it had gotten into the stomach, then things would have been a completely different story.

“It was something that Anne saw, that it’s not normal. She thought, ‘I’ve never seen Mary react that way. She’s not a complainer.’ I’ll never be able to say thank you enough.”

“That experience on the lacrosse field when Anne was there, what if it would have happened in her dorm, driving down the road?” John Griffin questioned. “It happened at the right place at the right time with the right person.

“I believe this with all my heart: Anne Bryan saved Mary’s life.”

Bryan has worked at Virginia Tech since 2014 and played a pivotal role in helping Sung get acclimated to his new job a few years back.

“She’s helped bridge the gap from the past to the present,” Sung said. “She’s well-respected in our athletic department and the kids go to her. She’s their first phone call, their sounding board at times. She goes above and beyond all the time for our kids.”

Bryan has done that with Griffin. She drove her to her biopsy appointment, wearing a mask and shield with the windows down in the pouring rain, trying to avoid any COVID-19 transmission.

“It was literally a movie scene,” Griffin laughed.

PHOTO COURTESY VIRGINIA TECH ATHLETICS

Anne Bryan has been an athletic trainer at Virginia Tech since 2014. Her instincts helped lead to Mary Griffin getting the medical tests she needed to find out she had cancer.

Bryan also helped Griffin navigate all of the follow-ups in Blacksburg and helped get the information to the right people in Baltimore as Griffin got ready for surgery. It has helped them strengthen their bond even more.

“We are closer than before because of what she’s gone through,” Bryan said. “It’s pretty similar to anyone who’s had an injury. I support them and advocate for them. They all know I’m only a phone call or text away.”

But their story is just beginning.

Just a month after surgery, Mary Griffin went for a light jog on a turf field in Blacksburg. Bryan was there to film the moment and captioned the short video, “Cancer free jog! I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

Yes, a comeback is very much on Griffin’s mind. But she’s found out it’s not going to be easy.

“I’m very competitive,” Griffin said. “Sometimes I need to calm down a little bit. I keep wanting to push myself. I do the drills that I can do, and stickwork, probably for 30 minutes. I’m going 100 percent in those 30 minutes, but my 100 percent looks a little different this year.”

“I can tell she wants to push through pain and discomfort,” Bryan said. “That’s not really in the cards right now, but she’s getting there.”

Paige Petty, who tore her ACL in Virginia Tech’s final game last spring, gave Griffin some sound advice.

“The road to recovery is not steady,” Petty told Griffin. “It’s going to be bumpy. Sometimes it’s three steps forward, and some days it’s four steps back.”

Griffin is limited to what she can do at this point, and as of late January, she still wasn’t cleared for contact. That hasn’t slowed her growth.

“When they start contact, I’ll go to the sideline,” Griffin said. “I’ll watch the top five defensive players and stand right next to [assistant coach] Amanda [Mozier]. I’ll ask her a thousand questions. She’s probably annoyed by me. I’m trying to absorb as much as I can.”

Griffin also spends more time than ever with her stick.

“One thing a lot of athletes forget is that sometimes people who are the most successful are best at the basics,” Griffin said. “When I come back, I’m going to have the best stickwork I’ve had in my entire life.”

Griffin’s time on the field will come again, and her family can’t wait to watch her play. But this journey has revealed the bigger role that sports play.

“When you put your kids in sports, you hope that they get more out of it than playing the game,” Kelly Griffin said. “When they stop playing, that there’s a bigger takeaway. It’s all about the relationships, the teammates, the support and love that you get from those around you.”