How a two-time Battle with Cancer Turned into Something for Survivors Around the Country
No child should ever have to deal with cancer. It’s a horrible disease that beats you mercilessly into submission. It drags your mind, body and soul to death’s door before ultimately destroying the host or leaving as mysteriously as it arrived. It lurks in the shadows of remission and even under the best circumstances, leaves a permanent scar on the survivor.
At the age of 15, Craig Pollard was intensely focused on all things that 15-year-olds find interesting. He was obsessed with baseball. A standout at Villa Park High School in Orange County, California. He lived and dreamed of playing professionally. He wanted to be the first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sometimes reality intrudes on even the best dreams.
Like a fastball in the ribs, Craig’s life was rocked by the news that he had Hodgkin’s disease. As the doctor spoke to his family, none of the typical thoughts of horror or despair ran through Craig’s mind. He didn’t ask where the cancer was or how it was going to be treated. He didn’t even ask if he was going to die. The only thought that ran through his teenage mind was whether he would be able to play baseball that season. When the doctor answered with a solemn “no,” Craig realized the severity of his situation. Never one to back away from a challenge, Craig took the doctor’s prognosis and came up with his own game plan.
The treatment included nine months of chemotherapy, three months of radiation and surgery that resulted in the removal of his spleen, appendix and several lymph nodes. All the while, Craig continued to play baseball, sometimes more than one game in a day. There were days when he got sick between games from the treatments. He never quit playing. He never took his eye off the goal. He wasn’t going to let cancer slow him down. Craig excelled in school and on the baseball field. It’s a trait he has since found in many cancer survivors. After graduating on time with his class, he earned a merit scholarship to the University of Southern California, and signed a letter-of-intent with the nationally-ranked Trojan baseball program. He had a girlfriend, Stacy, and was part of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Life was good.
Cancer keeps its own schedule and you aren’t presented an itinerary beforehand. At 19, and seemingly invincible to the entire world, cancer reared its ugly head for a second time. This time it meant business. It once again battered his body and tested his will to survive. As life continued on without him, Craig had to watch from a hospital bed as his friends, family, baseball career and the college experience all seemed to be slipping from his grip.
One night, while lying in his hospital bed, he had a conversation with God. Knowing that God is not big on negotiations, Craig none the less pleaded for his health. In return, he vowed to make a difference in the world. After a life-saving bone marrow transplant at the City of Hope, Craig’s health slowly returned and the life he had left behind resumed. He made his way back to the baseball field but much of the passion that fueled his desire to succeed on the diamond had disappeared. Wins and losses didn’t hold the same value that they once did. He wanted to be more than just an emotional leader for a college baseball team. One afternoon, during batting practice, Craig took one final swing and sent the ball sailing over the fence. It was at that moment he knew that this part of his life was complete. To the amazement of teammates and coaches, he took off the uniform and began the pursuit of a new passion.
He began his mission by devoting his time to other survivors. He served as a counselor at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times. It’s a special place for families with seriously ill children, a place which nobly tries to restore some kind of normalcy to their lives. After spending some time with the children, Craig became keenly aware that the children were inspired by him, a two-time-cancer survivor who was also in college. Like the proverbial carrot dangled before the horse, the thought of being able to experience something like that gave those children cause for hope. That feeling of hope that Craig experienced through those children set the wheels of invention into motion.
Subsequent visits with the parents of these children revealed an alarming fact. Families dealing with cancer use every last resource to fight the disease in the effort to keep their child alive. They often mortgage their present and their future in the battle. Life savings and retirement plans are drained by medications, operations and experimental procedures often not covered by insurance. How do you plan for the future of a child who might not make it through year’s end? College dreams are forsaken in place of just trying to keep your child alive. Comedian Sean Kent, a cancer survivor himself and longtime supporter of Cancer for College, joked at last year’s event that “...people dealing with cancer don’t have long-term plans. Their idea of long-term plans is ordering lunch. The cancer survivor looks to make every day perfect in its own special way. Those are the perfect people to send to school because they really know how to live.”
CANCER FOR COLLEGE IS BORN…
Craig saw an opportunity to make his impact. During his senior year at the USC Business School, he wrote a business plan for his senior project on a charity which would provide college scholarships to cancer survivors, with funds raised through a small golf tournament. He called it Cancer for College. The plan earned him special honors and notoriety. Stacy bought him a how-to book at the campus bookstore on starting a non-profit organization. Alumni thought so much of Craig’s idea that some even sent him money for his inaugural event. With cash in hand, Craig rallied 24 of his closest friends and family members to play in the opening event in 1993. It included a golf tournament and a BBQ in the Pollard’s backyard. Cancer for College proudly awarded its first scholarship totaling $500.
Craig and Stacy married and started a family. With friends, family and fraternity brothers carrying the word to their network of contacts, Cancer for College made steady gains each year. The scholarships grew moderately as did the participation in the golf tournament. It was not until one of Craig’s more famous fraternity brothers got involved that things really started to take off.
LIVE FROM THE DELT HOUSE...IT'S WILL FERRELL…
Will Ferrell was a lowly pledge when he first met Craig Pollard. Ferrell could not recount their first meeting, but he assumed it probably involved being yelled at for some reason long since forgotten. Since then, Will, has established himself as an international superstar in films such as ELF, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Blades of Glory, Step Brothers, the Other Guys and other assorted favorites.
Like many comedians before, Will started his career in the mostly empty bars and comedy clubs around Southern California. Craig and a close-knit group of friends would travel around in support of Will often comprising the majority of the audience. Will participated in a handful of the early events before he took off for New York and landed a featured spot on Saturday Night Live. There he made himself a household name with his depiction of insane characters and spot-on portrayals of cultural icons such as Alex Trebek, James Lipton and president George W. Bush. Each year, as the tournament rolled around, an invitation would be sent to Will and despite being on the other side of the country, he never forgot his friend who had battled cancer. A check would come in with a supportive note included.
As Will’s fame grew, so too did his ability to participate in the event. He saw first-hand the impact that Cancer for College had on the lives of cancer survivors and he wanted to do more. Will’s wife, Viveca Paulin, an actress and professional auctioneer by trade, lent her talents to the golf tournament’s live auction. The duo has made their association with Cancer for College a priority in their lives and have become a dynamic part of the foundation. Through their involvement, the golf tournament has become a must play event with a lengthy waiting list for participants. It’s often said that a person can give time or money to a charity. Will Ferrell and Viveca Paulin provide both to Cancer for College. Their contributions have allowed the foundation to grow in ways that could hardly be imagined. In 2007, Will auctioned off a walk-on role in one of his upcoming movies that garnered international publicity and earned nearly $50,000 for Cancer for College. Will’s involvement has had an impact on him as well. He has called Cancer for College “one of the purest charities he has ever seen” and he calls the involvement in the tournament a highlight of his year.
LOSING YOUR FOOTING…
As if Craig Pollard had not faced enough challenges in life, 2006 brought a new battle. Many cancer survivors are left with a compromised immune system as a result of treatments used to fight the disease. On a rather unremarkable day, Craig went to work at his Southern California-based golf accessory company. He began to feel the effects of what he thought was a cold coming on, but he couldn’t shake it. He quickly decided to go home for some rest. He barely made it. His temperature spiked and his body ceased to function. Paramedics were called and he was rushed to the emergency room. His condition deteriorated quickly as doctors struggled to find the cause of the illness. An aggressive bacteria had attacked his body and was destroying it from the inside out. His organs began shutting down and he was put on life support. Life is often about making trade-offs. Life was about to make another offer.
The medication used to maintain Craig’s blood pressure and ultimately save his life constricted blood vessels, but had the alarming side effect of causing his extremities to swell beyond recognition. This compromised the circulation in his feet and hands, in essence, strangling them. Gangrene set in. Doctors suggested amputation and with Stacy at his side, Craig agreed. Both of his feet were taken just above the ankle and while his hands were saved, they received tremendous damage and required months of physical therapy. In Craig’s typical fashion, he turned a devastating situation into a positive. At the 2006 Cancer for College golf tournament, only six months after losing his feet, Craig played golf in his prosthetics and the foundation proudly gave its first scholarship to an amputee.
Since our inception, Cancer for College has provided nearly $2 million in scholarships to almost 1,000 cancer survivors. We now host multiple fundraising events in addition to the annual golf classic held in San Diego each year. Our Taste to Educate fundraiser held in Seattle in January has enjoyed seven years of successful growth. We have launched new events in Texas and North Carolina with plans to expand to other areas around the country. Thanks in equal part to Craig’s compelling story of triumph, Will Ferrell’s celebrity and the thoughtful generosity of friends and corporate contributors. Cancer for College continues to thrive and grow. Join our on-going mission of providing inspiration and hope to survivors of cancer and amputees who want to to live their dream and share in the college experience.