NFL's breast cancer campaign touches many

BALTIMORE -- The scene was set for another raucous Ravens crowd at M&T Stadium on a football Sunday. Just moments before the game against the Jets, the fans acted in unison, making quite the statement. They held up brightly colored paper squares, forming two giant pink ribbons to denote the symbol for breast cancer awareness.

Jets wide receiver Derrick Mason may have been focused on the game, but he was very aware of the meaning behind those gestures as he prepared to face his old team in a city where he played for six years. Mason's mom, Glennie Winn, is a two-time breast cancer survivor, recently declared cancer-free after a relapse.

Mason is making pink a part of his weekly routine to honor his mom, wearing pink cleats at every practice this season. He wants to show a sign of respect for the women fighting the disease and to signal the need to be vigilant with their health in case it comes back.

"I like it I really do like it," Mason said. "For so long people didn't think pink was a masculine color but you see a lot of men wearing pink. I got a few pink shirts that go with my suits. I enjoy wearing the pink cleats, one because it's personal to me. But then two, pink looks good."

The NFL's focus this month on breast cancer awareness is clearly evident in the signs of pink solidarity everywhere in Baltimore. Ray Lewis stomped onto the field in pink gloves, survivors stood beside country star Martina McBride during the national anthem and the marching band had pink feathers in its hats.

"I really do thank the NFL for what they've done as far as breast cancer and bringing more awareness to it," Mason said. "I think it makes women feel good that a bunch of guys are bringing awareness to breast cancer."

At first, Winn didn't want to tell Mason about her cancer. She worried that he was far away and thought family closer by in Detroit would be able to get her to appointments. But Mason wanted to know and helped his mother during those darker moments of uncertainty.

"Like I told her, 'You can worry about it, have your moment, but don't let your moment consume you, you got to concentrate on beating this thing,'" he said.

Mason isn't the only player who has had to play on despite worrying for a mother, sister or wife who has breast cancer. The prevalence of the disease, which also occurs in men, is one of the reasons the NFL has chosen to focus on it.

It's not just a platitude. The league has a spreadsheet that lists players and their connections to the disease. Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald lost his mother. Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber participates in fundraising events each year honoring his mother and grandmother who are survivors. Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams came up with the idea of wearing pink cleats in honor of his mother's fight, which was essentially the springboard for the league's decision to brand the campaign with the eye-catching color.

Anna Isaacson, the NFL's director of community affairs, and one of the architects of the awareness campaign, said $1 million has already been donated to the American Cancer Society from sales of pink-themed football products. This season, the NFL and apparel manufacturers will make pink cleats, wristbands and gloves available for purchase, with portions of the proceeds going toward the new fundraising efforts.

Susie Spanos, the wife of San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos, knows it's shocking to see hot pink on a football player, but it still makes her smile. Fans who follow the game are going to wonder about the color choice, leading to a questions she often fields first-hand.

"Why are they wearing the pink?" Spanos said, repeating the fan questions. "What's the pink about?"

She's uniquely positioned to talk about the connection the NFL has to breast cancer. Seven years ago, doctors caught her breast cancer early, at a stage so small they almost couldn't biopsy it. Spanos was persistent about her health, and the cancer was ultimately removed. To her, being your own advocate and the NFL's pink-writ message of early breast cancer screening is all part of the same thing.

"You do have to take control of your health," Spanos said.

That message isn't lost on Mason. He feels a responsibility to his mom, making sure she keeps getting the screenings to catch any additional recurrences early. Helping was as simple as some of the conversations he has with Winn.

"I think the more you can make people aware of it the better," Mason said. "Then people won't feel so hesitant to come out and talk about it. A lot of people feel that's very personal and they choose not to talk to people about it. Or some people might find a lump in their breast and they might not say anything about it because they're just scared. What the NFL does, and other sports as well, is let women open themselves up to talk about it and go get regular exams."

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