October 14, 2009

HS team plays pink football game for cancer

MORE: Crazy finish in Michigan high school football | Wild ending in Pennsylvania

As she watched the Arizona State women's basketball team play in pink uniforms during a breast cancer awareness event, Lindsay Griffith turned away from the TV and toward her father, the athletic director at the local high school.

"Dad, have you ever thought about doing a pink football game?" she said.

The Power of Pink
Marcos de Niza (AZ) football team and community came together to support breast cancer awareness. Check out the photo gallery of the game and the incredible support.
Mike Griffith, the AD at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe, Ariz., did not hesitate.

"Absolutely not," he told his daughter. "No way am I putting 50 kids in pink uniforms."

Lindsay, however, wouldn't let go of the idea. She urged her father to talk to the school's principal. Nine months later, here's what everybody learned:

A bunch of high school football players will suit up in pink jerseys for the right cause. And between the time the idea popped into Lindsay Graham's head and the time the Marcos de Niza football team completed a 42-0 victory Friday night, everybody learned more about the team, the town and the cause.

"It gave me goose bumps to see all those people come together like that," Mike Griffith said.

And to think the night almost failed to materialize.

"No way," declared the principal, Frank Mirizio, when Mike Griffith first inquired about the possibility. Mirizo didn't oppose the idea, he just knew the school couldn't justify the $3,000 cost of buying pink jerseys.

Mike Griffith, however, wasn't deterred. He explained his daughter's vision and how they thought it could work, and soon the principal was on board. So was the football coach. It was all up to the players.

They brought in all 26 seniors.

"Immediately, without hesitation, they were all, 'Absolutely, we'll do this. This is a way to give back to the community,'" Mike Griffith said.

Order the jerseys, Mirizio said, betting he could find someone to support the cause.

In the meantime, they all found out that cancer hit closer to home than anybody first realized.

Zach Schira, the senior quarterback, was mentoring a sixth-grade girl who has a brain tumor. Ramon Abreu, the star senior running back, was comforting a friend on the baseball team whose mother has cancer. Lopez had lost his grandmother to cancer only three years ago.

But in August, with 55 pink jerseys and the $3,000 bill on the way, the school still was looking for someone to cover the cost.

They called the Arizona Cardinals, often derided as one of the NFL's most frugal teams.

"As soon as we heard about it, it was a yes," said Sheldon Meeks, community relations director for Cardinals. "We loved the idea and wanted to get on board and help any way that we could."

Pink gloves, someone thought. Why not order pink gloves to match the pink jerseys? Because it's too expensive, Mike Griffith said after calling a glove manufacturer.

Turned out Abreu, the senior running back, had made contact online with a salesman from the same manufacturer. It was no longer too expensive.

Cutters Gloves in Phoenix sent 22 pair of pink gloves free of charge. It was part of a campaign where the company donated 1,000 pairs of pink gloves to schools, free of charge.

Pros in Pink
Professional athletes, like Phil Mickelson, have had their lifes affected by breast cancer. See the photo gallery of what other athletes are doing to spread awareness.
The week of the big game, the Marcos de Niza High School football team had its pink jerseys, pink gloves and a scouting report on Gilbert Perry High School with a cover page that read: "It's a privilege to play for these young men and women that are fighting this disease."

By then it'd become clear that cancer, in many forms, had impacted members of the team who took the field Friday night holding hands with a cancer survivor.

There was Schira, the senior quarterback, with Julia Hilabrand, the 12-year-old girl with the brain tumor and confined to a wheelchair. She wore Schira's regular home jersey, No. 12.

The Arizona State University cheer line was there. So were two Arizona Cardinals cheerleaders. As was Matt Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal who is the Cardinals' backup quarterback.

But the faces blended into the sea of pink, a standing-room-only crowd of about 5,000 that dressed as if their wardrobes included but one color.

"We might have to play a little harder because we're wearing pink," some of the players joked before the game.

But as they stood next to cancer survivors, some players fought back tears. Hundreds of pink balloons - all with names of cancer patients written on them - were released into the sky at kickoff. The crowd cheered as if Marcos de Niza had won on a last-second touchdown. Of course there was no last-second touchdown.

Rather, there was one touchdown after another after another as the inspired football team in pink dominated on the field while students in the stands sold pink T-shirts and pink bracelets.

Solemnity intervened at halftime when Leinart made a special presentation to Lisa Berkley, a home economics teacher who'd just gone through her first treatment for breast cancer.

After the game, Mike Griffith drove home with his 17-year-old daughter, Lindsay, the one who'd set event in motion when she was looking for a community project for a local service club to which she belongs.

What Mike Griffith feared the players would resist and what might be too expensive to pull off, well, the players had relished it.

And, by the time the gate receipts had been counted, and pink jerseys had been auctioned off for $40 apiece, and the pink T-shirts and pink wristbands had been sold, the school had raised almost $7,000 for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer research foundation.

Buoyed by the event's success, the school has decided the first football game every October will culminate a service-oriented week for the team, staff and students.

"That was awesome, Dad, that was so great," Lindsay Griffith said on the ride home from the game Friday night. "Did you see the people out there? They had tears in their eyes."

Mike Griffith was humbled, by the night and what his daughter had set in motion.

"Lindsay, when you have a good idea and you involve the right people, it just becomes more than you ever dreamed it would,'' he said.

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