Game dedicated to those battling deadly disease

Kristin Otto

“I think your strongest bonds come whenever you go through the worst of times together.”

Longhorn safety Blake Gideon shared his thoughts on the coherence of the University of Texas football team coming off an unranked, losing season. However, when the team enters DKR Stadium to take on the Kansas Jayhawks this weekend, recollections of tough times in the minds of UT players will not be limited to past football defeats.

In the spirit of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Longhorns will charge through the tunnel on Saturday evening sporting colored ribbons on their helmets.

“They get to dedicate the game to the person in their immediate family who has either survived or have lost or is fighting that deadly disease,” said Texas head coach Mack Brown.

As part of his personal memorial, each player has the option to wear either a yellow, pink or purple decal. A yellow emblem signifies prostate cancer while a purple symbol brings mindfulness to all cancers. Gideon’s helmet will be adorned with a pink ribbon — the universal sign for breast cancer awareness.

Sitting in DKR after an off-season practice two summers ago, Gideon’s parents informed him that his mom, Ralene, had been diagnosed only days earlier with stage one breast cancer. Today, after rounds of radiation and medication — which she will continue to take for the next four years — Ralene is in remission.

While Ralene taught pre-calculus, her husband Steve held the position of head football coach at Leander High School — Blake’s alma mater — for more than 10 years. “[Ralene has] been a coach’s wife her whole life,” Brown explained. “When you’re talking about sports, she’s seen the highs and she’s seen the lows and you go back to work and you keep working. The c-word [cancer] is a very difficult one and she’s a great role model for people who are fighting that disease.”

Ralene is not only a role model for those battling cancer but to her son as well.

“My mom is my hero … [she] has been amazing and inspiring,” Gideon told the Austin American-Statesman.

According to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, it is estimated that among women in the United States in 2011, there will be 288,130 new cases of breast cancer; it will also cause the deaths of 39,520 females. In addition, it is predicted that 2,140 males in America will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 — 450 men will die of the disease this year.

Currently, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States. American Cancer Society reports that an estimated 1,596,670 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and approximately 571,950 Americans will die of cancer in 2011.

“We asked the players how many in your immediate family have been affected by cancer, and the numbers were overwhelming,” Brown said. “I’ve had it in my family. [My wife] Sally’s had it. I know it still affects her today as far as mentally. It’s something that all of us need to be aware of and reach out to those who have it, who have had it or have lost people who have had it.”

The deadly disease has impacted UT football on almost every level. At the age of three, Foswhitt Whittaker, senior Longhorn running back, lost his father to lung cancer. Ken Rucker, director of High School Relations and Player Development, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007. Like Ralene Gideon, Longhorn team physician Dr. Andrea Pana is a breast cancer survivor.

“[This week’s game is] a chance to give back to the community. The 100,000 people that come out here and show the support, the millions of people that watch on TV on Saturday, it’s a chance for us to turn around and give back, show our support if they’re going through that situation in their lives.”

Gideon has high hopes for the efforts that the football team plans to make on Saturday. UT players intend to give back to the Longhorn community through spreading cancer awareness, commemorating people who have survived, are battling or have been lost to the disease, and hopefully by reining in a Texas win against Kansas.