Not ever having been a star athlete, Steve Rom never felt what it was like to have a teammate raise him off the ground after a big victory.
But when his life was in jeopardy, he couldn’t have been more lifted by a teammate than he was by his friend Rod Payne.
Rom, 34, a sportswriter and Santa Monica College (SMC) alumnus, was diagnosed with leukemia the day after Christmas in 2001 while he was on a vacation to visit his family in West Los Angeles.
At the time, Rom had only known Payne, a former NFL player and Super Bowl champion with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, for a few months.
The two men met after being introduced by a mutual friend at the University of Michigan, where Rom had graduated with a degree in economics in 2000 and Payne had starred as an All-American center on the football team.
They never crossed paths while attending the university, but rather while they were back on campus as visitors. Aside from being fellow Michigan Wolverines, it was soon apparent to the men that they had many things in common, one being that they were both only children raised by single mothers.
“It was like we were long-lost friends,” recalls Rom, who is single and now lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
It didn’t take long for Rom and Payne to develop a close bond — one that many friendships can take years to develop — so, when Payne learned that his friend was battling leukemia, he made sure he was there — right there, in the same hospital room.
Payne left his job as co-host of a daily sports radio show in Ann Arbor, Michigan and flew to Los Angeles to come to Rom’s aid.
But Payne didn’t just visit with Rom, he stayed right in the room on a fold-up cot, and for the next ten months he became a source of inspiration for his friend that helped lead to Rom’s full recovery.
“He just walked in to the hospital room, dropped his duffel bag on the floor, looked into my eyes and said, ‘are you ready to do this?'” Rom remembers.
“I then went from being a victim to a competitor, just from his presence. I knew why he was there — to help me return to the game of life.”
Rom and Payne say they knew they had both experienced a miracle, and they have chronicled their story in a book, Centered by a Miracle: A True Story of Friendship, Football and Life, published last year.
Rom says the book, which is based on a newspaper article of the same title that he wrote, tells the story of how Rom was able to overcome a life-threatening disease with the influence of his best friend, but more specifically, it’s about the power of teamwork.
“No matter what obstacle you face you can achieve anything through the strength of those around you,” Rom says of the book’s message. “When you team up with someone, you can achieve far more than you can by yourself.”
Rom, who grew up in West Los Angeles and attended University High School, said he was not an athlete growing up and didn’t learn the same values of teamwork that Payne had as a star football player.
But Rom said that when he was lying on the hospital bed, he experienced teamwork to the utmost, as Payne became his teammate in the fight to conquer leukemia. Payne, who played four years in the NFL, became the “warrior” figure that Rom says he needed to get him through the battle.
Rom says he hopes that Centered by a Miracle can make readers feel that they, too, can “have a Super Bowl champion with them” when facing obstacles.
While Payne offered the physical and mental inspiration for Rom, it was a woman from Germany, Annette Lechler, who became the bone marrow donor that saved Rom’s life.
With the help of those around him, Rom survived the fight for his life, recovering from leukemia just ten months after he was diagnosed with the disease.
Rom credits his experience at Santa Monica College with providing him much of the discipline he applies when facing challenges in his life.
He attended SMC full-time from October 1997 to August 1998, when he studied graphic design and was also accepted into the scholars program.
Based on the encouragement of a counselor at SMC, Rom applied to and was accepted by a number of major four-year universities in the country, including USC, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan, where he ultimately chose to go.
He says he would not have gotten the same educational experience, had he not decided to go away to Michigan, but “it all started from SMC.”
It was at the University of Michigan that Rom began his career in journalism, writing for the school’s student-run newspaper, The Michigan Daily. Rom later became a sports reporter for the Ann Arbor News, a job he was working when he first met Payne.
To some, Rom and Payne’s friendship was unusual, as athletes and sports reporters don’t generally have anything beyond a professional relationship, Rom said.
But Rom said he could see that his bond with Payne was different, and they weren’t going to let professions stand in the way of friendship.
When his friend was in the hospital, Payne said he decided to stay with Rom in the room as a way to “be there for my buddy.”
“In any kind of tragic circumstance you just don’t want to be alone,” Payne said. “It was an incredible opportunity for me to be there for someone.”
Throughout Rom’s stay in the hospital, Payne, who had also faced physical challenges with 13 surgeries during his NFL career, told Rom how one’s mental attitude can be a powerful force in overcoming obstacles.
Payne said he didn’t have any plan on how to motivate Rom through the challenge other than to be a good friend.
“There’s no book for it, no manual, you just show up and give as much of yourself as you can,” Payne said.
Doctors had told Rom that he had a 40 percent chance to live, but Payne rejected that probability, telling Rom that he “had a 100 percent chance to live,” Rom said. The support from Payne and other loved ones is what Rom credits as being the main factor in his recovery, not money or medical technology.
“At 29, I learned that the greatest gift in life is love, and I had it,” Rom said.
For Rom, his victory in the battle against leukemia was nothing more than overcoming a challenge.
“Life is full of challenges,” he said. “You have to face a challenge and move forward.”
The experience showed Rom that the former Super Bowl champion he met at Michigan would not end up becoming just a friend or a “teammate,” but a brother — something both Rom and Payne were missing growing up.
“To this day, we’re not just friends, we’re brothers,” Rom said.
In a fitting reunion, Payne was at the airport to greet Rom as he got off the plane for the first time home from the hospital, a moment that Rom says “felt like soldiers returning home from war.”
More than four years after defeating leukemia, Rom says he has made it his “mission” to tell others about his experience and the lessons he learned through Payne’s influence.
The two friends have put their real-life story into words with Centered by a Miracle, a title they say explains what they shared.
“Miracles do happen and this is truly a miracle,” Rom said.