They are fighting cancer in The Acreage with each pass, catch and punt.
The 11th annual Flags for the Cure flag football tournament took place Wednesday, Jan. 3 through Sunday, Jan. 7 at Acreage Community Park, as teams of girls, boys, women and men of all ages competed on the field and simultaneously helped raise money to fight cancer.
“We’re kicking cancer’s ass one down at a time,” exclaimed Chris Mathews during a ceremony Saturday, Jan. 6 that celebrated survivors and remembered the brave souls who succumbed to the deadly disease.
Keith Shivers, Mike Chase and Mathews are the primary founders and organizers of the tournament that gave a $19,000 check to the American Cancer Society this year, raising the annual event’s total contributions to $242,000 over 11 years.
“We give 100 percent of our funds directly to the American Cancer Society, minus operating expenses,” Shivers said.
Mathews has coached flag football in the area for 20 years. He got the idea late one night to start a tournament that would benefit cancer research, because his ex-wife had contracted the illness.
Once he shared the dream with Shivers and Chase, they were all in.
“We wanted something where the end result wasn’t a trophy, but rather it was doing something good for others,” Mathews explained. “We’ve watched a decade of players grow up at this tournament.”
They have had as many as 77 teams at the tournament, and this year there were 10 co-ed divisions with players as old as their 60s participating.
A fixture at the tournament through the years has been Willy Freundlich, who has coached in every tournament, and most years he coached more than one team.
This year’s tournament is special to Freundlich, his wife Leslie, and daughter Katie, because last May he had a lump near his kidney checked out and he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. When he first sought treatment for the illness, he didn’t have medical insurance.
“Then, Saturday before Hurricane Irma hit, I was back at Palms West Hospital — because I had insurance by then — and they took my entire kidney out. It had a 500-gram cancerous tumor attached to it,” Freundlich recalled.
After the surgery, doctors determined that all of the cancer had been removed, without having chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Freundlich admitted what he went through hasn’t really hit him yet.
“To me, it doesn’t feel like I had cancer,” he said. “My love has always been here at this tournament and on these fields coaching flag football.”
For Freundlich’s family, he is now part of the group that benefits from the tournament.
“All these years we have been on this side, now we’re on this side,” Leslie explained.
Players from both of Freundlich’s teams gathered around him and his family during the ceremony honoring survivors.
Lisa Noel was the representative from the American Cancer Society at the event, and she, too, is a survivor.
Noel said the money that the organization receives from fundraisers such as the tournament help finance programs like transporting patients to and from treatment appointments; the “look good, feel good” initiative that provides wigs, prosthetics and other items to those battling cancer; and the Hope Lodges, where cancer patients and their families can stay when they are receiving treatment at a facility that isn’t near their home.
In Florida, there are Hope Lodges in Gainesville and Tampa, with another under construction in Jacksonville.
“The Acreage is a great community where they rally around life,” Noel said. “It’s amazing to see so many survivors and to hear the names of those who died out in the western communities.”
She added that money goes to help local clinics perform preventative screenings that lead to early detection, which is the key to beating cancer.
“It’s humbling to be a part of this,” Noel said.
The Kids Cancer Foundation had many of its young heroes be part of the ceremony honoring survivors, and there were even young players who donned the white sash with blue lettering spelling out “survivor” on it.
KCF founder Michelle O’Boyle said they don’t get any funds from the tournament but are honored to be part of the event. “This is our second year here, and it’s great our kids are recognized as survivors,” O’Boyle said.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Mathews announced that going forward, the event would be named the Michele Meredith Flags for the Cure flag football tournament, in honor of a local woman who was instrumental in organizing the event in its early years.
“We remember who we lost and honor those who are fighting — and winning,” Mathews said.
A primary sponsor of the tournament is Hubbs Tire & Service in West Palm Beach.
For more information about the tournament, visit www.flagsforthecure.com.