Two high schools hit the gridiron to raise cancer awareness

Sterling Heights High and Madison High square off Sept. 27

By: Andy Kozlowski, Jason Carmel Davis | C&G Newspapers | Published September 19, 2013

MADISON HEIGHTS/STERLING HEIGHTS — This Friday, the Sterling Heights Stallions and Madison Eagles will go head-to-head in football. You could say it’s a “Battle of the Heights,” but the real battle is against cancer. 

This will be accomplished by raising awareness and funds for a few groups who are trying to make a difference. At press time, those groups are the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) and the Malia’s CORD Foundation. Details were being finalized for a third group specializing in prostate cancer. 

The game will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at Sterling Heights High, 12901 15 Mile. Cost to attend the game is $5. Patrons may also purchase a cancer awareness T-shirt for $20, which would give them free admission to the game.

Funds raised through the sale of the T-shirts will benefit Malia’s CORD Foundation — an organization dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric spinal cord glioma by promoting medical research and educating the public.

Brian Thomas, a former quarterback at SHHS, chose the group. Thomas died after a battle with spinal cancer his senior year in 2011.

The game itself started the same year, held in his honor, inspired by a similar event at Romeo High where the proceeds were split between the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Now in its third year, the cancer awareness game at SHHS continues to bring attention to different cancer-related groups. LLS, its Michigan branch headquartered in Madison Heights, is a new addition this year.

“While other larger cancer organizations target their mission investment on prevention and early detection, we focus on a cure, because blood cancer has no known way to prevent it or detect it early. That’s why it’s urgent we focus on finding cures,” said Carol McQueen, director of school and youth at LLS. “Blood cancer strikes with no notice, at any age, male or female.”

Back when LLS was founded in 1949, a blood cancer diagnosis was almost always fatal. But now, thanks in part to their efforts, survival rates have quadrupled for blood cancer patients.

Blood cancers are still the leading cause of death for children and adults under the age of 20 — more than 1 million Americans are battling blood cancers, and 50 percent will die within five years — but the most common form of childhood leukemia now has a 90 percent survival rate.

In 2012, LLS distributed more than $1.3 million in co-pay assistance to 525 Michigan families. More than $1 billion has been invested in blood cancer research since 1949, including $75 million in research in 2012 alone. Of that, $6.6 million was invested in Michigan researchers.

Then there are the international projects.

“We put money into around 400 projects in more than 13 countries,” McQueen said. “Targeted therapies continue to be a focus, as well as GVHD (graft-versus-host disease).”

At the University of Michigan, Dr. Pavan Reddy is working with LLS funding to prevent GVHD, which patients often get after receiving a bone marrow transplant to put their blood cancer in remission.

While the Sept. 27 game will help people appreciate the hard work of groups like LLS, it will also honor those who have experienced cancer firsthand. 

Fifth-year SHHS football coach Brent Widdows said this would be the only game of the season where his players will have a name on the back of their jersey, but it won’t be their own names. The players will be honoring someone — a family member or friend — who has beaten cancer, is currently fighting cancer or lost their battle with the illness.

“I think that gives them a little added motivation,” said Widdows, whose team sat at 0-3 overall, 0-2 Macomb Area Conference Gold Division at press time. “You get to see their unselfishness because, even when they make a tackle or a great play, it’s not their name that’s called; it’s ‘mom’ or ‘grandpa.’ Even out on the field, they’ll be doing something for someone else.

“Our community is very diverse, and we’re all affected by this illness,” Widdows added. “Having something like this, I think, brings the community together, and it lets people know that their friends and neighbors are dealing with similar things, and that they have someone to rely on and talk to if they need it.”

Stallions senior linebacker Michael Adour will wear Thomas’ No. 6 jersey during the Sept. 27 game. Widdows said a different player would wear that jersey in each cancer awareness game. He said that player exemplifies attributes similar to those Thomas possessed — athletically and academically.

“Anyone who wears that jersey during this game will be a person of strong character, conviction and great in the classroom,” Widdows said. “I didn’t want to retire a jersey because, when you do that, it goes up in the rafters and everyone forgets about it. I told Brian’s family that we will always do something to remember him, and having his jersey on the field for this game is a great way to do that.”

Madison High will be the third team Sterling Heights has played in the annual game. The Stallions matched up against Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse in 2011 and St. Clair Shores Lake Shore last season. Sterling Heights is 1-1 in the contests.

But the real victory will be against cancer.

“The hope is, someday, there will be a cure,” McQueen said, “and we won’t lose the people we love.”

Sterling Heights High School’s third annual cancer awareness game will be at SHHS, 12901 15 Mile, at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27. Admission is $5. Admission is free for those who purchase a $20 cancer awareness T-shirt. Proceeds help fight cancer.