By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
2001 was a difficult year for Bradie James. At the time, the former linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans was a standout junior at LSU when he lost his father, also named Bradie, and then his mother, Etta, just three months after that. Both losses had a jarring impact on him, but it was his mother’s death from breast cancer that kindled a new-found calling: find a way to help people get the early diagnostic testing and care as well as access to services and resources for patients and survivors.
In 2005 he launched Bradie James’ 56 Foundation in honor of his mother.
“This happened to me and it was a family deal,” said Bradie who has an older sister and two older brothers. “It took away one of the cornerstones of our lives. It was my duty. You want to make your parents proud and it was a way to extend her legacy.”
It can be an overwhelming proposition to start a foundation and to determine in what direction it should go. But James took a deep breath and created his focus.
“It’s like eating an elephant, I had to take one bite at a time,” he said. “We started focusing on early detection. I didn’t have any connection with hospitals to do mammogram screenings. I did a survey in Baton Rouge and [the issue of transportation] was what kept coming up. They would say, ‘If I had the means to get there, I would go.’ That’s how we began. We started encouraging people to go out and we would pay for their transportation – bus cards, taxis and town cars – to take them back and forth.”
And that led to one of the foundation’s main services, their mobile screening units.
“Providing transportation morphed into, ‘Why don’t we bring the clinic to them?’ and that’s where the mobile unit came in,” James said.
The mobile units, which are large, RV-style vehicles go into communities that tend to be lower income and where residents have few access to resources. They go into dozens of the parishes in Louisiana as well as numerous counties in Texas. Having this testing device coming almost right to their doorsteps has allowed hundreds of women to get breast cancer screenings who might otherwise not have been able to.
As the foundation’s reach and profile expanded, it began to capture the eye of the medical community.
“We partnered with Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge and Methodist Hospital in Dallas,” James said. “I created a model and I said, ‘If we can get the mobile unit out here I’ll refurbish the units get them up to speed and pay for the operating expenses if you can go to the underserved communities and get them mammogram screenings.’”
The foundation, which now has numerous additional partnerships from hospitals to community organizations, primarily serves Louisiana and Texas, the two states that James has called home. While it takes donations the overwhelming majority of the funding comes directly from James who prefers to do that rather than dissecting his attention with having to arrange fund-raising events.
While James supports the extra focus placed on breast cancer each October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, he points out that there are 11 other months when people need to pay equal attention.
“Breast cancer happens 365 days a year, not just one month.”
And there has been a lot of progress made over the years not only in detection and treatment, but in awareness, all of which James finds extremely gratifying as he has been able to see it up close and often with many of the individuals who have been able to take advantage of the services the foundation offers.
“It’s been great [watching the progress],” James said. “When you focus on breast cancer people think it’s just one disease and you’re focusing on the women, but it affects everyone in the family. For the women it’s physical and emotional so you have to use the whole continuum to help these people heal. Early detection is key but what does survivorhood look like? We start focusing on early detection and how people transition [after treatment] getting them out and living again. That’s been awesome too. For me to see all the strides that have been made is great, but all the people who’ve been helped they are genuinely thankful.”
Since its inception, the Foundation 56 has helped thousands of women and have received communication from numerous women whose lives were actually saved by having received a mammogram provided by the foundation, which led to detection early enough for treatment with a positive outcome.
James hopes to eventually expand the reach of the foundation, but for now the help he’s providing in Texas and Louisiana is measurable in statistics and immeasurable in its impact on lives and families.
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.