Anyone who knows me knows that I love football! After all, I grew up in Southwestern Pennsylvania where football is huge and Friday nights and Sunday afternoons are spent at a stadium somewhere. I, and everyone else in the tri-state area, spent our Sundays cheering on our beloved Steelers. As a child, I watched the Steeler game every Sunday with my Dad. I attended college in Pittsburgh and was in the city when the Steelers won one of their 6 Super Bowls. Then I graduated from college, got married, and my husband and I closely followed the Steelers too. My husband chose to leave me with 3 children under the age of 5 at which point I became a single mother, but that didn’t interfere with my passion for the Black and Gold.
Before I knew it, my oldest son was playing Pop Warner football and I became a football mom. When he was old enough, my youngest son followed in his brothers footsteps. I was very involved as they moved up through Middle and High school and didn’t miss a game. Both of my sons attended college on football scholarships too which was a huge help to me financially. (My husband had checked out long ago.)
I look back fondly on those years. My sons no longer play football, but my grandsons do and I find myself on bleachers again to enjoy watching them play. Here’s a recent picture of me and 12 year old Tristan (fondly known as T).
So what does lung cancer have to do with football? Well, I was shocked by a lung cancer diagnosis in late August of 2005. It was grim. I was told I had 3-5 years to live. I remember watching as the Steelers marched through the playoffs and met up with the Seahawks in the Super Bowl that year. The Steelers won and I became NED (no evidence of disease). In 2009, it was discovered that the cancer had metastasized to my liver where 17 tumors decided to take up residence. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that year too and the clinical trial I was on along with radiation knocked the cancer back considerably. At this point I associated the Steeler record with how I was responding to treatment. When the Steelers did well. I did well. Flash forward to the present. The Steelers are doing well and I’m doing well. The new clinical trial I’m on seems to be working and the best thing is that I’m not experiencing any adverse side effects.
Along the way, I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Chris Draft, a former NFL linebacker. The love of Chris’s life, Keasha Rutledge Draft, a former dancer for the Charlotte Hornets and a beautiful, young healthy woman, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer at age 37. Like so many of us, Keasha was in great shape and was a non-smoker, but we know now that lung cancer doesn’t care and anyone can get this hideous disease. Chris proposed, Keasha accepted and they were married. Five weeks later she passed on. She didn’t want any wedding gifts. Instead, she wanted to start a foundation with Chris to help fund research and provide opportunities for lung cancer patients, so Team Draft was born. One of the programs Team Draft offers patients/survivors is their “Survivor at Every Stadium” program where lung cancer survivors are Team Draft’s guests to NFL and NCAA football games all across the country.
Chris isn’t the only NFL player to lose his wife to lung cancer. Levon Kirkland, big number 99, was an all pro linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers who also lost his wife to lung cancer. Ironically, his wife was also named Keisha. She was a weathercaster, a never smoker, and passed away from lung cancer at age 41, leaving a 5 year old daughter behind along with her husband. I remember watching Levon play every Sunday as I waved my terrible towel with every tackle he made. Levon is a former linebacker coach for the Arizona Cardinals and recently returned to Pittsburgh to attend a Steeler game with two lung cancer survivors. Here’s what he said about that experience: “My journey back to Blitzburgh! I went to the game with two lung cancer survivors, Dan and Will. I lost two loves of my life to this horrible disease. My lovely wife Dr. Keisha Kirkland and my oldest brother, Ernest. This is not just a smokers disease. It can effect anyone especially women.” Through the efforts of Chris, I had an opportunity to have a short conversation with Levon. He is a soft spoken and very laid back fella and I have to admit that I was a little star struck as we spoke. I was also struck with the familiar survivor guilt that I feel when I’m around Chris. Here I am, still fighting the fight since 2005 and both of these fine men have lost their young wives to lung cancer. It’s during these times that I wonder, why not me?
In the spirit of Thanksgiving where we take stock of all we are thankful for, I want to let Chris know that I’m very grateful and thankful for all that he and his foundation does for us. He is a fierce advocate loaded with energy. He also is compassionate, kind and caring, and completes my connection between football and lung cancer.