Former NFL linebacker Chris Draft and his wife Keasha were looking forward to spending their lives together, but Keasha lost her battle to lung cancer a month after the couple were married.
Chris has since made it his mission to put a face on lung cancer victims and survivors, and a 10-year-old Renville boy is helping with that mission.
“She walked in the room, she was beautiful. She had that energy,” Chris said.
It was an energy Chris Draft knew he couldn’t live without. He met Keasha Rutledge while he was playing linebacker for the Carolina Panthers. She was a dancer for the Charlotte Hornets.
“If the room felt like it was flat, she was going to raise it up. She was going to do something to get people loosened up, smiling. That was her,” said Chris.
When Chris retired from the NFL in 2010, Keasha talked him into training for a 10K run. An active person and a non-smoker, Keasha started to struggle with the training. She complained of shortness of breath, so she went to see a doctor.
“Chest X-ray. Lung cancer. Stage 4. It had already spread. It already spread to her brain and a few parts of her body,” Chris said.
Cancer didn’t stop Chris and Keasha from marrying in November 2011. One month later, and a year after being diagnosed, the love of Chris’s life passed away. Keasha was just 38 years old.
“When she was struggling, a month before she passed, she still cared about other people,” Chris said.
Before she died, Chris and Keasha made a pact to change the face of lung cancer. So he started “Team Draft.” He visited 60 cancer centers across the country, met with doctors, and asked to meet with survivors just to hear their stories.
“Their stories are all different. Some of them are older. Some of them are younger. Some of them are 10, like Zac,” Chris said.
He’s talking about 10-year-old Zac Gustafson. Zac and his 8-year-old sister Ella have cystic fibrosis. Last year, Zac was also diagnosed with lung cancer. After hearing about what they were going through, Chris made the trip from Atlanta to Renville, Minnesota, just to spend a day at their school and meet their family and friends.
“My best friend Brendan. My whole grade, then Aidan’s whole grade, then Ella’s whole grade,” Zac said.
“It’s heart-warming. It inspires you. It makes you want to do the same,” Zac’s mom Sue Gustafson said.
It was cancer that brought Chris and Zac together, but it’s sports that’s helped them form a bond. On this day, Chris is doing for Zac what he’s done for countless other lung cancer survivors — taking him to a Twins game.
It’s the new normal for Chris — taking survivors to football, baseball, basketball and hockey games. It’s how he keeps Keasha’s memory alive. And to Chris, there’s something special about Zac and his family.
“His personality is just huge. His brothers and sisters are the same way. Zac’s personality is a little bigger,” Chris said. “When I see him smile, then I see her.”
Zac is cancer-free right now, but that doesn’t mean Chris will stop visiting.
“Zac was healthy all summer. His last hospitalization was in May. Chris actually came out to visit the day he got home from the hospital,” Sue said.
Just like when he played in the NFL, Chris is on a mission to see things through. And in his heart, he knows it’s what Keasha would have wanted.
“She’s here, she’s here. This is real. This is her continuing. Her legacy is not that we just remember her, but it’s in being able to appreciate the journeys of all the other survivors that we’re rooting for,” Chris said.
Zac still has to go through CT scans every three months and has to have check-ups for cystic fibrosis every four months, but right now both he and his sister are doing great.