More than 400 people are registered to pass, pull, block and blitz this weekend in the annual Flags for the Cure flag football tournament at Acreage Community Park. This is the 13th year that players have laced up their cleats, strapped on their flags and taken to the field to compete against the deadly disease of cancer.
Aside from a 50/50 raffle — in which the winner receives half of the cash prize and the other half is donated — all of the money raised from the event goes to the American Cancer Society. Proceeds from the all-volunteer event are also raised through concessions, a silent auction and registration to play.
The first games took place Thursday night, and the four-day tournament is set to run through the championship games on Sunday, Jan. 5. There are 47 teams in this year’s competition.
The Thursday and Friday games are seeding matches, followed by single-elimination rounds and the final championship games. Divisions vary by age and gender, ranging from a 13 & Under category to Women Over 30 and co-ed categories, just to name a few.
A key highlight of the event will be a ceremony on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 11 a.m. honoring those who have fought, are fighting or have lost the battle against cancer.
Over the past 12 years, Flags for the Cure has been able to donate $272,000 to the American Cancer Society and is confident that it will add to that number this year.
The event began more than a decade ago, when three friends — Chris Matthews, Keith Shivers and Mike Chase — had a vision to combine the sport they love with a passion to help those touched by cancer. Word continued to spread until the once girls-only competition turned into a huge football extravaganza.
“The [Acreage Athletic League’s] girls flag football program was the preeminent program in the county, if not the region,” recalled Tom McCarthy, founding member Mike Chase’s brother-in-law. “There were so many girls, and cancer was starting to become a scare in The Acreage. Some families were being affected by it.”
Event leaders eventually settled on donating money to the American Cancer Society because of its wide sphere of support.
“Not only do they allocate funds for research for a cure, but they also allocate funds for families that fall upon financial hard times,” Tom said. “They get assistance with equipment, and they get assistance with funding. It was a great idea, and it was just an idea that became better and better.”
Nowadays, the tournament is open to anyone who can field a team.
“Anybody, any age can play it — men, women — so it was just a good, popular thing,” said Pat McCarthy, Tom’s wife and a loyal competitor in Flags for the Cure.
She has played in the tournament since year one, and her team has yet to lose a championship game. But as much as she loves the sport, Pat is appreciative of the competitive yet friendly atmosphere that is unique to this tournament. People aren’t there to win a trophy, the goal is tackling cancer.
“That’s the main thing — everybody’s out there for fun, and we’re helping raise money [to fight] cancer,” Pat said. “That’s why there’s really not a lot of issues.”
At some of the travel tournaments she has attended, harsh competition became a problem, whereas in Flags for the Cure, participants are competing against each other, yet for a common goal.
“The bottom line is, everybody out there knows we’re raising money to fight cancer,” Pat said.
But that doesn’t mean players take it easy.
“The games are no less competitive,” Tom said. “But every person who does play ball during the tournament realizes that ultimately, the goal is to cure cancer, and that the money that they contribute to play in the tournament goes toward cancer research and assistance to families affected by cancer.”
“Cancer’s a tough, tough thing,” Pat agreed. “I don’t know if you could talk to anybody whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer in one way or another.”
Tim Ashurst, an avid flag football coach in The Acreage, is one such person.
“I had breast cancer March of 2012, and I’ve been in remission ever since, thank God,” he said.
While breast cancer is far less common in men than in women, Ashurst said it is not as uncommon as you might think. “Men just don’t like talking about it,” he said.
In the almost eight years since Ashurst was diagnosed, he has met seven other men diagnosed with breast cancer or pre-breast cancer, and he has also lost five family members to various forms of cancer just this year.
That makes the tournament just that much more important to him.
“The money that we raise not only goes to help find a cure, but to help people less fortunate than I am — to help them get to their treatments, to get their medication or maybe if they can’t afford a meal, the American Cancer Society helps them get a meal,” Ashurst said. “It helps those people, and that’s why I’m out here, to raise as much money as I can and do my part.”
Ashurst tries to live life to the fullest every day, and he encourages others battling cancer to persevere in the midst of their struggle. “Don’t give up,” he said. “Be a fighter.”
Flag football fans are welcomed to watch the games until Sunday’s last whistle. Acreage Community Park is located at 6701 140th Avenue North. Learn more at www.flagsforthecure.com.