How a Three-Time Battle with Cancer
Turned into Something Special for Survivors
At the age of 15, Craig Pollard was obsessed with baseball and a high-school standout. He dreamed of playing professionally and wanted to be the first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers. 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. His only thought 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 a day. There were days when he got sick between games from the treatments. He never quit playing. He wasn’t going to let cancer slow him down. Craig excelled on the baseball field and in the classroom. It’s a trait he has 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 new girlfriend, Stacy, and was part of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Life was good.
Cancer keeps its own schedule. At 19, cancer reared its ugly head again in Craig’s life. This time it meant business. One night, while lying in his hospital bed, he had a conversation with God. Knowing that God is not big on negotiation, Craig 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. But much of his passion for baseball disappeared. Wins and losses didn’t hold the same value. He wanted to be more than an emotional leader for his team. One afternoon, during batting practice, Craig took one final swing and sent the ball sailing over the fence. At that moment he knew 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.
While working to help other cancer survivors, Craig learned an alarming fact. Families dealing with cancer use every last resource to fight the disease and keep their child alive. Life savings and retirement plans are drained. How do you plan the future for a child who is fighting for their life today?
Cancer for College is Born…
During his senior year at the USC Business School, Craig wrote a business plan for a charity that would provide college scholarships to cancer survivors. He called it Cancer for College. The plan earned him special honors and notoriety. Craig rallied 24 of his closest friends and family members to play in the opening event in 1994. It included a golf tournament and a BBQ in the Pollard’s backyard. Cancer for College proudly awarded its first scholarship totaling $500.
With friends, family and fraternity brothers carrying the word to their respective network of contacts, Cancer for College made steady growth 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 taking off for the charity.
Live From the Delt House, it's Will Ferrell…
Will Ferrell was a lowly pledge of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity when he first met Craig. Ferrell could not recount their first meeting, but he assumed it probably involved being yelled at for some silly reason long since forgotten. Will went on to establish himself as a comedy icon. Each year, as the tournament rolled around, an invitation would go out to Will. Despite being on the other side of the country, he never forgot his friend who had battled cancer. A check would arrive with a supportive note included.
As Will’s fame grew, so too did his ability to participate with the charity. He met the scholars and saw first-hand the impact that Cancer for College had on their lives. Through his involvement, the golf tournament became a must-play event. The charity staged crazy fundraising events all around the celebrity of Will Ferrell. It’s often said that a person can give time or money to a charity. Will Ferrell and his wife Viveca Paulin give both to Cancer for College. Their contributions have allowed the foundation to grow in ways that could hardly be imagined. He has called Cancer for College “one of the purest charities I have ever seen” and he calls the involvement in Cancer for College events as a highlight of his year.
Losing Your Footing...
As if Craig 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. Craig acquired a blood stream infection that his immune system could not fight off causing him to go septic. The medication used to maintain Craig’s blood pressure constricted blood vessels and 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 his wife 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.