Martin Rogers, USA TODAY Sports 10:14 a.m. EST February 9, 2016
If it was a Hollywood script, it would be criticized for being too far-fetched. A cancer patient gets inspired to fight against her prognosis by her favorite NFL team, which, despite doubters and critics, makes it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Between rounds of chemotherapy, she flies to the big game with the help of a wheelchair and oxygen, meets one of her football idols who lost his sister to cancer and then sees her team defy the odds to win it all.
Yet Kimberly Ringen’s tale is not a movie script. The 38-year-old from Denver won a Super Bowl trip due to her inspirational fund-raising efforts while battling lung cancer, which she acquired through a genetic condition despite having never smoked a cigarette in her life.
Ringen’s cancer is still growing and she was told back in 2013 that she had between one and three years to live. But she likens her struggle to that of her beloved Broncos, one that culminated in ultimate victory against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
“Victory is not always pretty,” she told USA TODAY Sports by telephone. “When one part isn’t working so well, another part of the team steps up. When the Broncos offense was finding it hard, the defense stood up. When my natural defenses are struggling, we have to go on the offense against the cancer.”
The idol she met? Broncos general manager John Elway, who lost his twin sister Jana to lung cancer in 2002 and was introduced to Ringen and her husband Davin at the owner’s party. His message to her was this, “we’ll win one for you on Sunday.”
Ringen feels the power of football. She lives with it and through it daily. She had one round of high dosage chemotherapy a day before boarding the plane to the Bay Area and is soon due another. It is hoped that the chemo will stop the cancer from growing and enable her get to into clinical trials and undergo modern procedures like immunotherapy.
Her journey was made possible through the Chris Draft Foundation, set up by the former NFL linebacker of the same name. Draft lost his wife Keasha, an engineer and Clemson grad, to lung cancer in December 2011. At their wedding a month earlier, Keasha, deeply unwell, asked for money to be donated to the foundation in lieu of gifts.
Draft had taken Keasha to the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas and seen how the excitement and energy uplifted her, despite her favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, falling short against the Green Bay Packers.
He now works with cancer centers nationwide to spearhead the Lung Cancer Survivors Super Bowl Challenge, where those affected by the disease compete to raise money for awareness and medical innovation.
Ringen raised more than $24,000 to win the top prize, a Super Bowl trip including tickets to the game for her and Davin.
Since losing his wife, Draft has worked tirelessly to erase the stigma surrounding lung cancer as a “smoker’s disease.” Many sufferers acquire a genetic version of the cancer that has no correlation with smoking whatsoever.
“I don’t need to go back and tackle a man again,” said Draft, who played for six teams in 12 seasons after being drafted out of Stanford in the sixth round in 1998. “What I want is to take that effort and energy and tackle lung cancer and the way people think about it. I want to show the stories of our people who live with it, because they are inspirational.”
That’s where football and the Broncos give Ringen a helping hand.
“I draw strength from them,” she said. “When the season comes around is the only time I don’t realize I have cancer. It is nice to be able to take a break from that, lose myself in the football, cheer for someone else.”
Ringen is a trained veterinary oncologist who realized she had cancer when she examined lymph nodes along her collarbone with an ultrasound machine she would normally use on dogs and cats. She was five months pregnant at the time and lost her unborn son as a result of the cancer.
Determined to fight and maintaining high hopes that developments in treatment give her a greatly increased chance of survival, Ringen had the Super Bowl prize all wrapped up before the playoffs even started.
“Once I won the prize I would have gone to the game anyway and worn my Peyton Manning jersey,” she said. “But this is like a dream.”
Through the postseason, a local news segment gave Ringen some fame among Broncos fans, some of whom adopted her as a lucky charm.
“People would come up to me and say how happy they were for me and that I would be taking the Broncos along for the ride,” she added, her voice hoarse from so much Sunday evening shouting. “This is the perfect way for it to end.”
Draft spent two years with the Carolina Panthers, but after seeing Ringen’s love for the Broncos and resilience in the face of adversity, there was only one team he could root for.
Everyone who fights against cancer is a winner,” Draft said. “She is a big winner – and she got to see her team win the biggest game of all.”
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @mrogersUSAT.