John’s Journal: The Sky’s The Limit For Tackle Cancer
After 10 Years, Millions Of Dollars Have Been Raised
Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2022 - 12:55 PM
After one of the biggest games in Simley High School football history, a victory on Nov. 17 that moved the Spartans into the Prep Bowl state championship game this week, head coach Chris Mensen was standing in a quiet hallway inside U.S. Bank Stadium and talking about Kim Madigan.
Kim was 59 years old when she died on January 20, 2020. Her husband Mark is an assistant football coach at Simley and Kim was an administrative assistant in the athletic department at the school in Inver Grove Heights. Her memorial service was held in the school gymnasium.
As Mensen talked about Kim, he touched a rubber wristband he wears in her memory. The Spartans had just defeated Rocori 17-16 in the Class 4A state semifinals; they will face Hutchinson in the Prep Bowl on Friday afternoon. The coach’s thoughts were focused on the team and the day, but when asked if his school raises money in support of Tackle Cancer, his focus shifted.
Kim Madigan died after a battle with cancer.
“I still wear her bracelet because she means the world to this program and this community,” Mensen said. Like at many schools across Minnesota, Simley’s Tackle Cancer activities include T-shirt sales and free-will donations during one designated week and home game each fall.
“And we try to honor someone, a part of the Simley family, who’s suffering from cancer,” he said.
Tackle Cancer began 10 years ago, and by the time all the participating high schools and colleges in Minnesota send in the funds they have collected this fall, the 2022 total will exceed $400,000. In the decade that Tackle Cancer has existed, nearly $3 million has been raised to fight cancer.
There may be no other charitable effort like Tackle Cancer in the country. The Minnesota Football Coaches Association (MFCA) leads the efforts, which provide funding for research, prevention, treatment and other programs relating to the needs of the cancer community.
THE BEGINNING WAS SIMPLE, and no one could have imagined 10 years ago what was to come. It started with two friends: a television veteran and a football coaching veteran.
Randy Shaver, news anchor at KARE TV, is a cancer survivor. He and his wife Roseanne started the Randy Shaver Cancer Research & Community Fund after his experience with the disease. Dave Nelson, now retired as a football coach, was the head coach at Minnetonka High School when he was treated for prostate cancer in 2011. Shaver invited Nelson to one of his fund’s charity events.
“I asked Dave to just come see it, as a friend,” Shaver said. “I told him, ‘Come see what we do, meet some people, have some fun.’ He took that moment and turned it into something that was totally unexpected on my part. It was his initiative to try and do something with the MFCA to benefit something we all deal with in one way or another.”
Nelson and his wife Maureen found the evening to be life-changing, hearing inspirational stories of what people were doing to support Shaver’s foundation. As the Nelsons drove home, Dave began pondering ways to help. “I was thinking, there’s got to be something we can do,” he said.
At a construction project near Minnetonka High School, rocks needed to be removed from the site. The Skippers football team pitched in, spending three days shoveling rocks into wheelbarrows, with Shaver stopping by to show support and take photos with the kids. They dubbed their effort “Rock Cancer” and were paid several thousand dollars, which they donated to Shaver’s cancer fund.
Nelson met with fellow officers from the Minnesota Football Coaches Association, asking if such efforts might be something that other teams would be interested in. That’s when the partnership between Shaver’s foundation and the MFCA began rolling.
“I asked our executive committee, ‘How about if a bunch of teams did this?,’ ” Nelson said. “We got Randy’s blessing and everybody thought it was great.”
The coaches committee met with Randy and Roseanne (she dubbed the project Tackle Cancer) and they decided it would be fantastic if they could raise $5,000 during the 2012 football season. The total? $120,000.
Shaver said, “My first concern was I didn’t want to inconvenience coaches. I didn’t want them to feel obligated. Dave said, ‘They’re all going to be on board.’ They took it and ran with it.”
THEY’VE BEEN RUNNING FASTER AND FARTHER each year as Tackle Cancer efforts have spread around the state. This year, 182 high schools and 18 colleges, including the University of Minnesota, have taken part. The small community of Randolph, which has a well-deserved reputation for charitable giving, led the way by raising $49,000 this fall in their Tackle Cancer efforts.
Stillwater High School raised $26,000 and St. Thomas Academy provided $25,000 to Shaver’s fund.
The St. Thomas Academy head football coach is Dan O’Brien, whose son Casey is a well-known cancer survivor. Casey, who played football at Cretin-Derham Hall and was a holder for kicks at the University of Minnesota, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, at age 13 and has had multiple cancer fights since. Casey has undergone 25 surgical procedures and has spent 300 nights in hospitals.
“Cancer has touched everybody in our community,” Dan O’Brien said. “Everybody knows somebody and you think about it every single day. The coaching community is a tight-knit deal. People go through stuff they shouldn’t have to go through. It rips your guts out and you want to support them.”
During this year’s Tackle Cancer events at St. Thomas Academy, the Cadets had donation buckets at the gates, also selling wristbands, headbands and other items. Students at the school wear uniforms, but if they bought a Tackle Cancer shirt they could wear that instead of the uniform.
“For us it’s a week-long deal, not just the day of the game,” Dan O’Brien said. “We start preparing for it in the summer. Our community really rallies around it.”
After 10 years, students and families at high schools all over Minnesota are familiar with Tackle Cancer efforts. The focus is on football games in the fall, but money also is raised for Tackle Cancer during basketball games, wrestling meets and other sports.
The funds are distributed mainly to support cancer research in Minnesota; the Shaver fund puts nearly 95 cents of every dollar into that support. The organization is lean, with Roseanne Shaver serving as executive director and Heather Austin as assistant executive director. Much of the work is done by volunteers.
“We don’t pay (medical) salaries, we don’t pay for researchers or their assistants. We pay for the things they need to do their research,” Randy Shaver said of where the money goes. “It allows us to really dig down and support incredible research projects with the Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Duluth, all those great places.”
THIS WAS A GRAND FOOTBALL SEASON at Wheaton/Herman-Norcross, with the Warriors winning 12 consecutive games before losing to Mountain Iron-Buhl in the Nine-Man state semifinals.
“Everyone's impacted by cancer nowadays somewhere. We've had parents have it, we've had grandmas and grandpas, it's just everywhere,” said Warriors coach James Paul.
“Tackle Cancer is a way for us to rally for a cause, and I think the kids enjoy it. We have great support with it, too. We order T-shirts and this year I ordered pink team socks, so now we can keep those and use those every year.”
The Warriors also hold an auction with the winners taking possession of the seniors’ jerseys, among other fundraisers.
At Becker, everyone knows Dwight Lundeen has completed 53 seasons as the only head football coach in school history. Some also know that his wife Pam is a breast cancer survivor, his sister Marlene has been declared cancer-free and his brother Dave is currently receiving cancer treatment. Cancer indeed touches everyone.
During Becker’s 2021 efforts, the players wore pink jerseys during warmups before their designated Tackle Cancer game, with the jerseys being given to players’ family members and friends who have been impacted by cancer. This fall, the Bulldogs were given pink footballs, to be gifted to the person of their choosing. Dwight gave his pink football to his brother Dave.
Barnesville and Hawley usually come together on a Tackle Cancer game when they meet in a passionate rivalry with large crowds. If it’s during Homecoming week at Barnesville, girls are not allowed to wear the boys’ jerseys; instead, a silent auction allows girls to get in bidding wars for the jersey they want to wear. The jersey auction alone raised $1,000 last year.
“In our community, we lost a teacher this past summer to cancer and I think everybody knows somebody that's affected by it,” said Barnesville coach Bryan Strand, whose team will meet Chatfield in the Class 1A Prep Bowl game on Friday.
Simley’s Tackle Cancer efforts extend beyond the dollars raised. The football team talks about how cancer impacts their community.
“We speak that week about the importance of thinking about family members and everyone who has come into combat with this awful disease,” Mensen said. “I don't think there's a person out there who hasn't been touched by it. I know I have personally, good friends of mine are currently battling cancer. Everything we can do to fight this horrible disease, I'm in and the kids are in and we want to help serve. That's a great thing.”
Ron Stolski, who retired at Brainerd following the 2019 season after 58 years as a football coach, is executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association. He and other coaches among MFCA leadership have been the driving force behind Tackle Cancer, but Stolski doesn’t hesitate in calling Nelson “The wheelhorse behind this. He has driven it, formed a committee of over a dozen reps responsible for certain sections of the state and did all this great work.”
Stolski, who attends the American Football Coaches Association convention each year, said he talks about Tackle Cancer with people from other states and basically sees blank stares from coaches who are so wrapped up in the game that they have a difficult time thinking of devoting so much time and effort to off-the-field charitable efforts.
That’s clearly not the story in Minnesota. Tackle Cancer is an incredible tale of selflessness and commitment, with football coaches and football players, joined by their communities, going above and beyond to help conquer cancer.
“It’s been so cool to watch it grow,” Nelson said. “The coaches of Minnesota have been so awesome and so many good football programs are behind it. This year our goal was $400,000, which would be a record, and we’re going to breeze past that.”
What does the future hold for Tackle Cancer?
“I think the sky’s the limit, I really do,” said Nelson. “Next year our goal might be $500,000, what the heck? To see what these schools do, it’s unbelievable.”
Shaver smiles when he thinks back to how Tackle Cancer started, how far it’s come and what could happen in the years ahead.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It started with one guy who took it to the MFCA, who all said, ‘Yes, let’s do this thing.’ I just kind of stand back in amazement and watch what they’ve done.”
--For more information on the Randy Shaver Cancer Research & Community Fund, click here: https://randyshavercancerfund.org/
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]