Campus: Fresno State -- March 16, 2006

Bulldog Fans Find Deep Meaning in Chance Liberty Bowl Meeting

For three members of a California State University, Fresno alumni family, a trip to the Liberty Bowl last New Year’s Eve turned into a heart-warming connection with an Alabama firefighter who lost his house to Hurricane Katrina and nearly lost his son to cancer.

Richard Samuelian and his sons, Richard and Ron made the trip to Memphis courtesy of wife and mom Merlene, also an alum, so they could watch their alma mater’s football team play in its seventh straight bowl game. Sitting behind them were a man and three boys. Two of the boys were cancer patients being treated at bowl beneficiary St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, which arranged for them to attend the game.

When Richard Samuelian noticed one of the boys – his head shaved from cancer treatment – shaking in the cold, he offered his Bulldog jacket, then struck up a conversation with the boy’s father, Kenneth Milligan, a firefighter in Mobile, Ala. “We weren’t even supposed to be sitting there,” Milligan said of winding up on Fresno State’s side of the stands. But it was a good thing for both groups.

In a letter to Fresno State football coach Pat Hill, Merlene Samuelian wrote, “The boys and [the] father praised and spoke volumes about the excellent conduct of your players as they visited” St. Jude’s during pregame festivities.

The Samuelians also were touched by Milligan’s story and decided to help the family that was going through serious trials. Milligan, his wife and another son had been staying at Ronald McDonald House in Memphis since August, so 15-year-old son K.J. Milligan could get treatment for germ cell cancer. On Aug. 29, though, the family’s situation got worse when Hurricane Katrina blew a tree through their house and floodwaters poured inside. “We lost about 95 percent of everything,” Milligan said.

Members of Mobile Firefighters Association Local 1349 rallied to help, donating leave time so Milligan wouldn’t miss a paycheck. They visited the Milligan home wreckage to salvage what they could. And, after Milligan secured a new home early this year, the firefighters made plans to paint and remodel it and started fundraising to replace appliances and furniture.

The Samuelians have stayed in touch by e-mail with Milligan and have embraced the firefighters’ effort to raise $10,000, telling the Milligans’ story to relatives and friends as part of what Merlene Samuelian described as “a West Coast campaign to help the firefighters of Mobile help one of their own.”

In her letter to Hill, she told him, “You know that you are reaching people inside the football program here in Fresno, but you are also richly touching people’s lives throughout the United States.”

Said Milligan, “I didn’t really know anything about Fresno State before that day, although you see ‘em on ESPN. I’ve been an Alabama fan all my life, but it took me just about three hours to become a real Fresno State fan. The Samuelians are just amazing.”

Also amazing is K.J.’s progress. His father said doctors have told him it could be April when the family can return to Mobile. That’s two months earlier than originally estimated.

People who would like to help the Milligans, should send contributions to Mobile Firefighters Association, Local 1349, KJ Milligan Fund, 6911 Ching Lynch Road, Mobile, AL 36618.

Contact: Lanny Larson, 559.278.4620 or 559.278-2795

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