Even in his first years in the NFL, Cleveland Browns kicker Billy Cundiff, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys in 2002, knew he wanted to do something outside of football to give back. Like many players, Cundiff formed a foundation in order to coordinate his various charitable and community efforts. Initially he was involved with numerous different causes including veterans and other more football-focused activities.
Billy also recognized that an NFL career can end at any moment, so he decided to pursue an MBA, which he earned from Arizona State University in 2007. And then things took a different turn.
That same year, his mother-in-law, Colleen Drury, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was a shock, but the entire family sprang into action. His wife, Nicole, along with her three sisters, became consumed with their mother’s care and assistance.
And it was at that moment that Billy and Nicole both knew they wanted to dedicate the focus of the foundation to finding a cure for the disease that Colleen was battling.
Billy was out of football in 2007 and 2008, so he was able to devote his time and energy to being hands-on building the foundation into a viable organization.
“I got an MBA,” he said. “I wanted to actually use it.”
Nicole, who had earned a law degree, was ready to dig in. Her mother and father, an attorney, were involved in the early days of the Make-A-Wish Foundation when it first started in Arizona and Nicole always knew she wanted to take on a philanthropic cause of her own. Now it was personal.
It was also a huge undertaking. At the outset, nobody in the family knew anything about ovarian cancer or how to start connecting their foundation to that cause. But, before too long, they began compiling resources and things began to fall into place.
And Colleen was front and center, sitting on the foundation’s board of directors and participating in any way should could to further its work.
The foundation’s specific mission is to fund research to develop early detection testing for the disease, but when possible they hope to raise awareness in geographic and economic areas where it’s most needed.
“We only fund research, but what we do want to do is make sure women in communities where information might be less available is to know what the signs are,” Nicole said. “We’ve got pamphlets and posters. We’ve got a billboard we want to put in a lower income community, but billboard space is very expensive so we are looking for donations for that.”
The foundation officially took the name Colleen’s Dream in 2012, but just a year later, at the age of 58, Colleen lost her battle with the illness.
Like many who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Colleen’s wasn’t discovered until it was already in an advanced stage. The statistics are sobering. For those who are diagnosed with stage one or two, the five-year survival rate is 92 percent. The survival rate for those diagnosed in the later stages is less than 50 percent. It is the fifth leading cause of death among women in the United States.
“The statistics are terrifying so people are really motivated,” Nicole said.
With their goal focused on early detection, Colleen’s Dream is honing in on where that work is receiving the most attention.
“We’ve created partnerships with multiple institutions based on who’s got the best and brightest talent,” Billy said. “Our first grant was to Johns Hopkins, then MD Anderson, then the Cleveland Clinic. We’ve also worked with the University of California San Diego, which has a bunch of young investigators, as well as the University of Arizona, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York.”
The Cundiff’s oldest child, six-year-old daughter Chloe (they also have two younger sons, Luke and Caleb) has already been profoundly affected by her family’s work. Chloe, whose real name is Colleen, was very close to her grandmother, whom she called “Gigi.” Nicole described how even at this young age, Chloe has embraced the cause and has developed her own plan.
“This is deeply personal for us,” Nicole said. “I love that my daughter gets to see us do something in my mom’s name. She says someday she’s going to work for Gigi’s foundation and I can watch her babies so she can help.”
Billy too is excited about seeing the family legacy of community service continue. “I want our kids to want to give back and make a difference. I want to truly make a difference and make them a part of something that’s much bigger than themselves.”
For more information about the Colleen’s Dream Foundation and ovarian cancer, visit www.colleensdream.org