Anish Roy/ Daily Collegian
Anish Roy/ Daily Collegian

Bigger than a game: Olivia Muscella honors her mother on and off the field

A foundation created in love

May 15, 2022

Whether it was shoveling snow out of the driveway for her elderly neighbor or baking sour cherry oatmeal cookies for the entire team, Kendra Muscella’s impact was felt by all. She was also the inspiration for her daughter, Olivia, to create a foundation in her memory.

In March 2019, Kendra was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer, and immediately began to undergo radiation. Her family was devastated. Olivia heard the news right before the UMass women’s lacrosse tea, boarded a bus to Davidson. She sat alongside her teammates, but the only thing on her mind was her mother. She wanted to be with her family.

She helped lead the team to victory, but remained distracted, not able to celebrate or laugh with her teammates. Muscella’s instinct is to take things on herself rather than asking for help, and that’s what she did when she received the news. However, she did tell Kiley Anderson, a senior at the time and the older sister of current UMass defender Brinley Anderson, and Anderson accompanied her when they went to tell head coach Angela McMahon-Serpone about the diagnosis.

McMahon-Serpone comforted her immediately and that’s when Muscella knew that the team was always going to be there for her.

From that moment till now, McMahon-Serpone watched Muscella overcome devastating news and put energy into helping others going through those same challenges.

“Her maturity and leadership is just amazing,” McMahon-Serpone said about her work with the foundation. “She’s such an inspiration … I think the world of her. She’s improved in every facet. She’s been an amazing captain for us.”

Following the news about her mother, Muscella wanted to come home despite her parents telling her to stay at UMass, but she received a phone call from another athlete who had experienced a similar situation himself.

Michael Muscella, Olivia’s father, is a current high school athletic director at Valley Forge Military Academy and is a former football coach. One of the players he coached was Larry Fitzgerald, former wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, who has a very similar story to Muscella. His mother passed away from breast cancer when he was a sophomore, and Michael immediately reached out to him to talk about Kendra when she was first diagnosed.

“He called her right then,” Michael said. “He gave her a number and said, ‘Liv, whenever you need to talk, you call me whenever.’”

Following Fitzgerald’s advice, Muscella finished out the season because lacrosse is something both her and her mother love.

“I think too, I was able to use lacrosse as my distraction, so I was able to get on the field and focus just on lacrosse,” Muscella said. “Being in season helped too because you’re focused on the game, you’re focused on the sport and things like that. I was able to stay in contact with my mom and kind of be reassured that everything would be okay until I got home.”

With eight games remaining in the regular season, Muscella remained at UMass. A lot of the team’s success comes from their personal connections and family mentality, and that transfers off the field too. Her parents knew that it was a supportive environment, with her coaches and teammates always being there for her. One day, she returned to her dorm room to find the bed riddled with stuffed animals and treats from her teammates.

“I had so much support at school,” Muscella said. “I think my family and my parents just trusted that I would be okay.”

At the end of the semester, Muscella returned home for the summer. During that time, Kendra’s treatments were going well but after Muscella returned to campus in the fall, her family received more devastating news. Kendra was scheduled to have a colon resection and lymph node dissection on Nov. 7, 2019, but the surgery was held off because they found another spot of cancer. Muscella stayed at school, training with the team and preparing for the upcoming season. When it was cut short due to COVID-19, however, she returned home.

Shortly after, the family got a call from her oncologist saying that none of the treatments were working and that the only thing they could do now was give her a pill that would make her live a little longer. Her family had to accept the fact that this wouldn’t cure her, and Muscella’s only focus was spending as much time with Kendra as she could. She would sit with her mom and help them both find comfort, stressing that Kendra had lived her life to the fullest and accomplished so much.

“Kind of accepting the fact that she was going to die,” Muscella said. “She lived so much of her life. Like more than a normal person would in their 100 years of life, she lived way more in her 52 years of life.”

Kendra passed away on Mother’s Day in 2020.

“I always knew I wanted to do something in her memory,” Muscella said.

In summer of 2021 after her senior year, Muscella sat down and began to collect her thoughts, thinking of the best way to honor her mother. She reached out to her high school health teacher, whose daughter had died from pediatric cancer and had gotten involved with an organization to honor her. This is how she was introduced to HEADstrong.

The HEADstrong Foundation was founded by Nick Colleluori, a former three-sport athlete who competed in football, wrestling and lacrosse in high school. He also received an athletic scholarship to Hofstra University to join the men’s lacrosse team. Towards the end of his freshman season, he struggled to hear the play calls and cheers. One morning he woke up and couldn’t hear out of his right ear and was immediately evaluated by a doctor. Colleluori was diagnosed with a blood cancer known as Diffuse Large-B-Cell non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

He witnessed first-hand the lack of resources for those affected by cancer and created the foundation to increase awareness and raise money, specifically focusing his efforts on collegiate athletes. In 2006, he passed away and his dying wish was for his family to continue to foundation. Today, the foundation has assisted 20,175 patients and families, and raised 23 million dollars.

Muscella’s former teacher had created a fighter fund in her daughter’s name, and as she learned more about it, Muscella knew this was the best way to honor her mom. With the help of her teacher and the foundation, she created Kendra’s Kindness.

Her mother’s kindness was the sole inspiration. Muscella wanted to create this foundation to help others going through similar situations that need financial and moral support. When she went to her father with the idea of the foundation, he told her to run with it. While he is so happy with where it has grown to today, he knows that they can continue to expand.

“I try not to butt in, I really do, because I’m trying to get [Muscella] to think bigger,” Michael said. “Eventually we’re going to help a lot of people.”

Jeff Baxter, the senior community engagement director at HEADstrong, became Muscella’s main point of contact. Like Muscella, Baxter was a Division I lacrosse player, and his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away at the start of his junior year. It was a very challenging time for him, but he continued to pursue his degree in sport management and started working for the Special Olympics after college.

Four years ago, Baxter got the opportunity to work at HEADstrong, allowing him to combine his background with sport management and his philanthropic experience.

“I met with [Muscella’s family] last year and they really had the desire to do something in Kendra’s memory,” Baxter said. “[Kendra] was, from what I gather, a very loving mother, very important person in a lot of people’s lives, and people want to honor her and help others, and that’s kind of what Kendra’s Kindness is all about is paying it forward for families.”

When Muscella sat down with Baxter to talk about some of her plans, the one at the forefront was to have a game during her last season to memorialize her mother and support another family that was important to her and the rest of the team.

On March 5, UMass arrived at Garber Field in white shirts with its logo on the front and Kendra’s Kindness adorning the back. The game was in honor of the foundation and prior to the opening draw, Muscella, her family and the Minutewomen honored Liz Williams, the daughter of the team’s beloved bus driver Randy. Liz was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a type of bone or soft tissue cancer that’s mainly found in children and teenagers.

UConn also honored Williams by presenting her with a basket during the ceremony.

“You know what he’s feeling,” Michael said about the money they were able to raise for Randy. “The money is going to someone the girls love. It just made me feel good.”

Two weeks later, UMass traveled to La Salle for a matchup on March 28. Muscella’s father arrived on time planning to meet the girls at the hotel but found out they were running late. The reason for the delayed arrival was because the team found out that Liz was not feeling well, so they stopped by the Hartford Hospital, piling out of the bus with signs and waving up to her in the room.

The game played in honor of Muscella’s mother also tied into a national campaign created by HEADstrong for women’s college lacrosse teams called Game Hair Havoc. This event encourages athletes to style their hair for the games and raise funds for families affected by cancer. Currently UMass has raised the most money, totaling over $11,000.

“I’m so proud of [Muscella],” Michael said. “Seeing the look on people’s faces is unbelievable, knowing that my daughter was the person who came up with this and it’s fantastic. I can’t say enough about it. I really am so proud.”

“I make sure to be vulnerable with my teammates so that they feel like they can be as vulnerable as me,” Muscella said. “A lot of the girls on the team have been affected by cancer in some way, so I think the organization is a great way for them to not only support me, but also support people that they know that have been affected by cancer. So, it’s close to home for everyone I think.”

Her desire to support others stems from her own experiences, looking to help people going through similar situations. During Kendra’s treatments, Muscella was bombarded with questions asking about her mom, but was never asked how she personally was doing. When talking to other families going through a similar situation, she always checks in with them and gives them the support that she didn’t always receive.

One of the main goals of the organization is to raise money, because after talking to her father, Muscella knew how helpful it was to receive monetary donations for the bills and payments for Kendra’s treatment. By helping families, she hopes they will continue to pay it forward.

“I think creating a community around cancer diagnosis and things like that where you actually know where the money’s going to and being able to support other families that are going through something similar to what I went through is really special to me and something that I definitely want to continue on, even after I graduate college,” Muscella said. “I just love helping people, so this is kind of a way that I can do that that’s also very personal to me.”

Jon Asgeirsson/ Daily Collegian

Growing up, Muscella followed in her brothers’ footsteps, playing multiple sports including basketball, field hockey, softball and lacrosse. As she got older, she narrowed down that number of sports and eventually decided to fully commit to playing lacrosse.

Through travel teams and varsity lacrosse at Grant Valley High School, Muscella put in the work. Her families constant support, with Kendra at the forefront, allowed her to never have moments of doubt, thinking that it was too much.

“My mom was always like, ‘Liv if you are going to commit to something, if you say you’re going to do something, then you’re going to do it,’” Muscella said. “I knew once I committed to my tournaments or the sport, I was going to put my all into it and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to back out.”

She always worked hard and wouldn’t let anything stand in her way. Her father explained how when she was young, she saw someone do a one-handed cartwheel and wanted to do it. She practiced consistently until she eventually taught herself how to do it.

“That’s the kind of person she is,” Michael said.

Throughout the recruitment process, Muscella was originally recruited to play at James Madison University during her sophomore year of high school, but she was not ready to think about college. She also visited Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and UMass, none of which were her top choice.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Muscella was looking for a city school that was surrounded by constant movement and she found that at the University of Florida. When it came down to the final decision, though, UMass showed more interest, offering her a better scholarship and greater opportunities.

Despite that, the Muscella family didn’t have high expectations for the Flagship of the Commonwealth going into their first tour of campus.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to come to UMass at all before I committed,” Muscella said. “My parents were like “Liv, stick it out. At least explore the opportunity because you never know,’ and I’m so happy that I did end up exploring it because it’s the best decision that I’ve made for sure.”

When she arrived, Muscella described that being on a sports team is having built in friends. She observed that there was no hierarchy on the team, and everyone was treated the same regardless of whether they are an upperclassman or underclassman. It was a welcoming environment, and Muscella instantly was accepted as a part of the family.

Along with her daughter, Kendra was quickly immersed in the team too. She was able to attend games during Muscella’s freshman season and part of her sophomore year. Following the games, Kendra lined up for hugs and high-fives, with homemade banana muffins or cookies to go along with it. She was known as the Minutewomen’s biggest supporter.

“She would talk to every single one of my teammates and make them feel like they are the most special person in the whole entire room,” Muscella said. “Yes, she was my mom, but she also kind of took on the mother role for some other girls on my team that I guess needed it or just needed comfort at times.”

Kendra’s supportive nature and constant optimism all went into her understanding approach to any given situation, and she was always able to help Muscella determine the best decision.

“She was always just super supportive with lacrosse,” Muscella said. “Wanted me to just accomplish as much as I could and be the best person and player that I could be.”

Upon graduating in May, Muscella will work for Stryker, a medical technology company, as an onside specialist before looking to move up to sales representative in medical devices.

“That’s kind of my way of feeling like I’m making an impact within my job,” Muscella said. “I’m not just sitting at a desk and king of not interacting with people. I can actually be helping people and be in the hospital. And then, as for HEADstrong, my goal is to just continue to create events.”

Pat Colleluori, the brother of Nick, has been in contact with Muscella, explaining that he is excited for her to be an ambassador for HEADstrong in New England and continue to spread the word. Along with the events she will be planning, she’s had friends reach out wanting to run the Boston Marathon for Kendra’s Kindness, which is planned to be for next year’s race.

As the state of COVID-19 becomes safer, Muscella’s dream is to go into hospitals and volunteer with some of the children or families that are in the Cancer Center, which is something that the HEADstrong foundation has done in the past.

“Kendra was a helping person, and she would do anything to help people,” Michael said. “Olivia has a ton of that in her.”

Sophie Weller can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @sophieewellerr.

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