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Pink pride: NFL makes statement for breast cancer awareness

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As fall descends and there's an autumn chill in the air, the behemoth of all sports months takes flight. Which only brings to mind one thing ... pink?

For the past three weeks, you may have noticed a tad more pink throughout NFL stadiums across the country. Now in its third year, the NFL has once again partnered with the American Cancer Society in a joint effort to make October one of the largest platforms for breast cancer awareness. "A Crucial Catch" is a campaign designed to emphasize early detection and annual screenings for women, particularly over age 40.

As in 2010, this year's campaign is led by national three national spokespeople -- Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Tanya Snyder, wife of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, and Susie Spanos, wife of San Diego Chargers president Dean Spanos, both of whom are breast cancer survivors. Spanos applauds the NFL's efforts and emphasizes the importance of early detection.

"Encourage people you know to get mammograms" said Spanos. "Your sisters, cousins, girlfriends, everyone ... early detection is the key. Just start the conversation. In my own situation, I now can look back and say I was lucky, but I was lucky I didn't wait."

Snyder is working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and cancer advocates to recognize the National Breast and Cervical Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). Since 1991, NBCCEDP has given low-income, uninsured women access to lifesaving breast and cervical cancer screenings.

With a spotlight placed on such an important national platform, player involvement has risen as well. On and off the field, NFL players are involved in a number of different events and fundraisers to support the cause. For the third straight year, Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley held his "Rally for the Cure," a fundraising event put on by the Cooley family. Cooley donates half the money he raises to cancer research and the other half to the IIIB's Foundation (, an organization that makes gift baskets for women who have recently undergone a mastectomy.

"Whatever you can think of needing after a mastectomy is what these baskets contain, which is really cool," Cooley says.

Cooley's mother, Nancy, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and has successfully battled the disease for the past three years. For Cooley, the cause not only hits close to home but continually drives him to go beyond just raising money.

"I do an event with the Redskins and we invite 20 women who are currently fighting breast cancer to come to Redskins Park," said Cooley. "We put together wigs, hats, scarfs, jeans ... we have a whole line of makeup. I remember when my mother was going through chemo, I shaved her head and while she was the same person, her appearance changed drastically. It's something that can be difficult to go through."

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Now in his third year as national spokesperson, Fitzgerald advocates for the cause through the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund, a charitable foundation he established in honor of his mother, who lost her fight with breast cancer in 2003. With the power of social networking, Fitzgerald is raising the bar and donating 10 cents for every new Twitter follower he gains in the month of October. (By Oct. 20, he has more than 80,000 new followers -- $8,000 that he will donate.) Never one to neglect his on-the-field performance goals, Fitzgerald is also donating $10,000 for every touchdown he scores and $1,000 per catch this month.

In addition to local efforts, all 32 NFL teams are taking part in special pre-game ceremonies honoring breast cancer survivors and women currently fighting the disease. The NFL has ramped up efforts in merchandising through and are holding an auction for game-worn, autographed gear. The popular PINK gear worn by players and coaches can be bid on through with all proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society and team charities.

Whether it's a pair of pink gloves worn by your favorite wideout, or a set of sweat soaked pink wristbands, the gear raises money. Spanos is a huge fan of the merchandising efforts.

"I'm so incredibly proud of the NFL," she said. "This idea has been years in coming. I'm so proud of how things how things have progressed. Last year, we were able to give $1 million to the American Cancer Society and hopefully this year it will be even more. "

The platform of a medium that reaches millions every Sunday is something Cooley applauds and acknowledges as well. "The NFL makes a tremendous effort, without a doubt, and I know a lot of the players have been close to someone affected by breast cancer, as most of America," he said. "The NFL doesn't just raise awareness; they raise money for the cause."

Fighting a disease with so many unknowns takes time, resources, education and most of all action. As the leading cancer among women, getting a yearly mammogram not only lowers the risk, it also makes fighting a cancer diagnosis possible. In the U.S. alone, there are 2.5 million breast cancer survivors, a number that is quickly establishing that early detection improves the chances breast cancer can be diagnosed at an early stage and treated successfully.

While the game remains the central focus, New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer admits he was touched by the Oct. 2 pre-game ceremony.

"It really hit me, seeing those women unfold the flag on the sideline before the national anthem," Greer said. "In those women I saw my sister, my mom. They are every day women who are fighting this disease and took time out to be a part of what we're doing. It's a blessing. I've had close family members that have been affected by the disease and everybody knows someone that it's affected. So, for the NFL to take up a cause like this, it's special.

"When you're playing this game, it's easy to get caught up in how you're performing, how your team's doing, but then when you get a part of something that's bigger than you, bigger than football it gives you an opportunity to step back and take a look and appreciate life."

So, while October remains the goliath of sports months, this Sunday -- throw on some pink. It's here to stay.