Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Former player gives back through charity

Former ASU football player Joe Cajic is now in charge of Sun Devil Family Charities, which provides financial help to Sun Devils with medical expenses. Cajic was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997 and is 10 years removed from a successful bone marrow transplant.(Branden Eastwood | The State Press)

This week, Joe Cajic reached a milestone greater than anything an athlete could accomplish.

It’s been 10 years since the former ASU football player underwent a bone marrow transplant to help treat the chronic myelogenic leukemia he was first diagnosed with in 1997.

“[I] don’t have to see the doctor every five years now,” Cajic said. “It’s pretty much, ‘You’re good, it’s done.’ So it’s a big, big deal.”

But Cajic’s celebration will really begin on Saturday when Sun Devil Family Charities, an organization he helped create, hosts the “Be the Match” bone marrow drive at Sixth Street Park before the ASU football game against USC to raise awareness about transplants and to encourage people to become donors.

The goal is to get 500 people into the registry, and reaching that target doesn’t seem lofty compared to what Cajic has already dealt with in his life.

Cajic was an offensive lineman for ASU in the early 1990s, where he was a part of the early stages of the Bruce Snyder era. While sitting on the patio of the ASU Karsten Golf course last week, he reflected on playing with household names like Jake Plummer and Pat Tillman, beating a highly-ranked BYU team in Provo, Utah in 1994 and making new teammates perform skits during Camp Tontozona.

“There’s no time in your life that you’re going to have that experience of going to school and working as hard as you do on the football field,” he said. “And then [I’ll always remember] the teammates — hanging out in the locker room, hanging out in the meetings, and just the stories you have.”

Cajic also earned the Sun Devil Iron Man award in 1993 — and that tough-guy attitude would be put to the ultimate test shortly after his playing career ended.

After feeling like he was getting consistent heartburn, Cajic went to the hospital on Chrismas Eve in 1997, where he was immediately diagnosed with chronic myelogenic leukemia.

“The hardest thing you’ll ever have to do is tell your father or mother that you might die,” Cajic said. “At that time, with my disease, the prognosis was not good — it was three years [to live] or a bone marrow transplant. And then you research it, and you find out there’s not many people that survive this thing.”

There also wasn’t a donor for Cajic in the registry.

So to raise awareness about becoming a donor, Cajic decided to start a foundation called “Save Joe.”

But it wasn’t just designed to save Joe Cajic.

“[It was started to] save any Joe out there,” Cajic said. “We had to educate, recruit and fund.”

In two years, the Save Joe Foundation, using the “one at a time” motto that Snyder had preached to Cajic while he was a member of the ASU football team, tested about 1,200 people through drives.

But Cajic didn’t do it alone. He credits his extended family—his Sun Devil family—with helping spread the cause.

“I was the cause and I kind of created the vision and created the program, but it was people in the athletic department, people at the alumni association [and] students and faculty at ASU,” Cajic said. “It was pretty much everything that we defined as the Sun Devil family, and it was just amazing.”

And in 1999, Cajic found a match and underwent his own bone marrow transplant.

Following the transplant, Cajic still had a long road to recovery. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation, where he lost all his hair and nearly 100 pounds and was fed through a tube for almost five months.

And even after Cajic’s health was restored, the concept behind “saving Joe” still lingered.

In fact, it started to grow.

The same group that had helped with Cajic’s illness reunited for Ebony Kelly, an ASU graduate who was diagnosed with Polymyositis in 2003. As her condition worsened, doctors determined Kelly needed a double lung transplant, which she underwent this past August.

While Cajic and others worked to help Kelly with her medical expenses, they realized that they could turn their cause into an official charity to financially help individuals with ASU connections that are dealing with a serious medical condition.

Thus, Sun Devil Family Charities was born.

“We’re a network of Sun Devils united to help out the Sun Devil family, [and] we’ll unite for any cause,” Cajic said. “You’d have to talk to each person about why they do it, but for me, it’s my way to thank ASU for getting me back into life and getting me on my feet again.”

Since its inception, the exclusively volunteer-based organization has put on several events and used other avenues to help raise money for those taking a major financial hit because of medical expenses.

“It really is almost bigger than an emotional gratification,” said Todd Hanley, who is on the SDFC board of directors with Cajic. “I feel like this is who I am. I feel like I have purpose here now on this Earth — that I can help people and just be part of a community as opposed to just looking in your own little world.”

SDFC hosts a tailgate party before every home football game, where the proceeds from all food, drink and entertainment items purchased go directly toward helping someone in need. The organization also relies on private donations.

“If you raise three dollars and give it to us, thumbs up,” Cajic said. “And if you raise 3,000 dollars, awesome. We don’t care, because every 30 dollars helps pay for a prescription.”

One of those touched by SDFC is Taylor Souza, a three-year old daughter of two ASU graduates who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in June. She is in the process of going through five rounds of chemotherapy, which means her mom Kristen Souza needed to take a leave absence from her job so she could stay at the hospital with Taylor for days at a time.

SDFC used the proceeds from a golf tournament earlier this year for Taylor Souza’s treatment, but Kristen Souza said the support she has received from the organization has gone beyond the money.

“Taylor has a blog, and numerous people have posted just inspirational comments and well wishes and prayers,” she said. “That goes a long way; it definitely helps. Just knowing that we’ve got people that we don’t even know that have stepped up to try to make a difference for Taylor, it’s very comforting.”

Now, the next round of business for SDFC is to return to the roots that virtually started the organization.

Cajic had a one-in-a-million chance of finding a bone marrow match when he started recruiting potential donors after being diagnosed with the disease that probably should have taken his life.

Ten years later, Cajic’s skin shows small signs of burns from the radiation. His hands also still slightly shake.

But he found his match, and 10 years later, Cajic is celebrating.

“I realize how good of a gift everything is — just life itself and the purpose of why we’re here,” he said. “Is our purpose to go out and just have parties all the time and just do frivolous things? Or is our purpose to help the world get better? My view is it’s the latter.”

And through his efforts, Cajic hopes that other “Joes” can also be saved — one at a time.

Reach the reporter at

Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.