This year’s Super Bowl falls on World Cancer Day, a global campaign organized by the Union for International Cancer Control to raise awareness of and education about the disease through events worldwide, including Super Bowl 52. In recognition, we talked to two cancer patients about their special connections to the game on Sunday.
‘Fire Chief Bill’ Gets His Wish
In late October 2017, Bill Duggan had just gotten home after celebrating the christening of his first grandson when an intense headache came on. He thought it was a migraine at first, and then he went to the emergency room and was told that he had a mass in his head. Stage Four brain cancer, at age 59. The doctors told him he had two to four years to live. “It was one of the best days of my life,” he says of the christening, “and one of the worst days of my life.”
A few weeks later, Duggan had lunch with his best friend’s son Mike Chillemi. After Duggan told Chillemi about his diagnosis, they started coming up with a Bucket List, things Duggan would like to do with the time he had left. At the top of the list: a trip to the Super Bowl, to watch his beloved Patriots play. This week, Duggan will get his wish. He’ll be at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday for Super Bowl LII. How he got there is a testament to support from his community, and some charity from an unexpected source.
After their lunch, Chillemi and his brother-in-law Robert Racanelli started a GoFundMe page to send Duggan to the Super Bowl. They figured that they could get enough people to raise money to at least help pay for tickets—face-value prices start at $950; lower-bowl tickets are $2,700, face. Duggan lives in Tarrytown, N.Y., just north of New York City, and for 41 years he’s been a volunteer firefighter in the area. Some people call him “Fire Chief Bill,” a nod to his stint as chief at the station in nearby Valhalla, N.Y.
Word spread around the community, and in about two weeks the campaign had raised $12,259, more than enough to send Bill to the game. In the meantime, though, the Journal News’ Peter D. Kramer wrote a story about Duggan—and the NFL office took notice. A league official reached out to Chillemi to organize a surprise for Duggan. A few days after the Journal News story, Chillemi told Duggan to come to the Tarrytown fire station for a local radio interview. When Duggan showed up, there were 50 firefighters standing around. Duggan was asking Chillemi what was going on when he turned around to see …
“Holy s---,” Duggan said. He lifted up the visitor’s hat to confirm. “Yeah, you’re Roger Goodell.”
Goodell gave Duggan four tickets to the Super Bowl and then spent an hour at the firehouse, signing autographs and taking pictures as his wife and daughters passed out cookies. After Goodell signed one football, Chillemi says, “We told him we were going to deflate it and use it for our fantasy football trophy, and he was cracking up.”
As a Patriots fan, Duggan naturally had mixed feelings about the commissioner. Duggan was born in Massachusetts before his family moved to Tarrytown as a toddler. His father rooted for New England sports teams, and so did he. He was upset over Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for Deflategate. Now? “He can do no wrong in my eyes,” Duggan says of Goodell. “I will always be indebted to him. It’s not every day that you get to go to the Super Bowl.”
Then it was up to the Patriots to keep their end of the wish. Duggan watched the AFC Championship Game from the firehouse with 15 friends, and he was pacing the floor as Brady mounted another fourth quarter comeback. At the final whistle, his brother wrapped him in a bear hug.
Duggan was set to arrive in Minnesota on Friday, with Chillemi, Chillemi’s father, David, and Racanelli. Thanks to the NFL, they’re able to use the GoFundMe money on plane tickets and other expenses. As Duggan’s story has gotten more attention, more people have wanted to get involved. Judy Thill, the Inver Grove Heights fire chief, offered to provide Duggan and his friends transportation throughout the weekend, and on Saturday, Duggan will visit a local firehouse and hand out NFL Experience passes to the firemen as a thank you, from one firefighter to another.
In addition to the NFL events, Mike Chillemi and Racanelli also were planning to attend the Minnesota Wild game on Friday and the Timberwolves game on Saturday. Duggan has told them maybe. He doesn’t know if he’ll have the energy. He just finished his 30th chemotherapy session at Sloan Kettering hospital last Friday, and now he’s taking a few weeks off before the doctors perform an MRI and determine where to go from there. Duggan says that his doctor is “confident” that he can outlive the two- to four-year prognosis, and so is he. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “My grandson just turned five months old. I want to do things with him — fishing, football, that kind of stuff. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to beat this.”
With the Super Bowl falling on World Cancer Day, several head and neck cancer survivors will be in attendance at the game, and Duggan will do his part by spreading the word, too: All weekend he’ll have with him a giant foam hand decorated with stickers to raise brain cancer awareness.
After the Super Bowl, after his dream bucket list item is crossed off, maybe Duggan can turn his attention to the other items on the list. He wants to go zip lining, and maybe take a trip to Alaska. “We’ll wait until after the game,” he says. “I’m not it too much of a rush.” —Tim Rohan
An Underdog Tale—Just Like Rocky
Three weeks before Wayne Baird planned to fly to Minneapolis to fulfill a lifelong dream, he was on his knees in the family room of his Newark, Del., home, about an hour south of Philadelphia, with his Eagles shirt on, surrounded by family members in matching jerseys. And he was praying.
It was January 13, nearly a year after Baird had been diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, and given two to four months to live. Baird started five rounds of chemotherapy last March, but the mantle cell kept coming back. Two days before he was set to receive a stem cell transplant from one his daughters— doctors told him the treatment might provide his best shot at a cure— the cancer showed up in his skin. So Wayne went back to chemotherapy. Then, right when he was set for another stem cell transplant, the cancer returned in his spinal fluid. That ended Wayne’s hopes for stem cell. Now it’s chemo every day, lumbar punctures into his spine every month, and the hopes of an experimental drug being efficacious. In November, his oncologist updated his life expectancy to four to six months.
But that’s not why Wayne was praying.
Wayne was praying because the Falcons had the ball on the Eagles’ 2-yard line with 1:05 to go in the divisional round playoffs, and Philadelphia was clinging to a five-point lead. As Matt Ryan lined up under center for the decisive snap, Wayne was on his knees, screaming at his TV— “I’m 62 years old, I got cancer, and I’ve never seen the Eagles in a Super Bowl. Don’t do this to me.” So yes, there was relief when the fourth-down pass sailed through Julio Jones’s hands in the corner of the end zone, securing the Eagles a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
Baird is a lifelong Eagles fan, born in Philadelphia in 1955 and growing up minutes outside the city in Upper Darby, Pa. He remembers sneaking into Veterans Stadium as a teenager, because the fence wasn’t very high and all you had to do was grab on to one of the cement walkways and hoist yourself up. He was a season ticket holder for five years, and enjoyed two seats in the first row behind the end zone. “A lot of good memories,” he says, including one time that Reggie White returned a fumble for a touchdown and then high-fived Wayne in the front row.
The Eagles have provided a lot of not-so-good memories, as well, though. Wayne was there at the last game at the Vet, the NFC Championship Game after the 2002 season, when Tampa Bay ended Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes. “Joe Jurevicius will always be a nightmare for me,” Wayne says. Then, of course, there was the last Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl, in 2004, which Wayne watched from home with 40 friends, a combined Super Bowl party and birthday celebration for himself. After the game he just sat there and stared blankly at the void. “Like someone took all the air out of my body,” he says. “It takes me a while to recover.”
But like all of the Eagles’ most fervid fans, his loyalty and dedication to the team and the city has not waned over the years, heartbreak and all. “The Eagles have pretty good history, even though we haven’t won much,” Wayne says. “I’m not one of the lunatic fans, but I’m a very passionate fan. They kind of go a little overboard, but they are my brethren.”
When Wayne first went in for the chemo treatments last year, he could sense that his family in the room was a little bit tense. So when the nurse entered, Wayne took his phone out and played the Rocky theme song. Soon Wayne had a Rocky poster on his hospital room wall, and would wear a Rocky robe and Rocky boxing gloves as he walked through the hallways giving out high fives. He named the pole that carried all of his medicine, the one he walked with everywhere, “Adrian.” Soon all of the nurses started to call him Rocky. He is Philadelphia toughness incarnate, and he was fighting his own version of Ivan Drago.
Rocky was an underdog, Wayne is an underdog, and so too, Wayne notes, are his Eagles this year. In December, before the playoffs began, one of Wayne’s daughters reached out to the Dream Foundation, the only national dream-granting organization for terminally ill adults, penning a letter. “He loves all things Philly,” the letter read. “My dad’s favorite thing about Philadelphia, though, is the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are doing great this year, and it is my dad’s dream to watch them win the Super Bowl. To be there while it happened is something he could only fathom. I realize a lot of things have to happen in order for this to come true…”
And somehow those things did happen. First with his prayers being answered after the Julio Jones drop. Then with Nick Foles’s stunning performance against the vaunted Vikings defense the following week. “We call him Saint Nick up here,” Wayne says.
A couple of days after the NFC Championship Game, an Eagles representative called Wayne’s wife, Linda, and notified her that they had two tickets for Wayne to fly out to Minnesota and watch the Eagles play in the Super Bowl. Soon Linda was walking into their house and telling her husband to close his laptop and to stand up. Then she started jumping up and down as she relayed the news. Wayne and Linda will fly out on Saturday. And it is fair to say Wayne is more than a little excited.
“When it’s all done, I know I’m still going to have cancer, but this next week I’m going to just live the dream,” Wayne says. “It almost feels like you can check the list off the bucket. If I wasn’t terminal, I would look at somebody and say, alright I can die now.”
Wayne has regretted missing the Eagles’ Super Bowl in New Orleans in 1980; he says he should have traveled and attended that game. But now, he remarks, “It is amazing how everything turned out.” Of course, Wayne and Linda will be rooting hard for an Eagles win, the storybook ending to an underdog tale. But regardless of the outcome on Sunday, Wayne will be living out his dream.
“After following the team for 50 years, some horrible losses, disappointing losses,” he says,” I will sit in the stadium with a smile on my face.” —Ben Baskin
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