At this year’s Relay for Life, Connor Cosgrove was able to do something he didn’t think he would ever do — celebrate his 22nd birthday.
Cosgrove, a wide receiver on the Gophers football team, was diagnosed with leukemia just two games into his sophomore season.
“I was forced into a lot of growing up in a really short amount of time,” Cosgrove said during the event’s opening ceremony.
At the University’s 10th annual Relay for Life, head football NCAA tournament success coach Jerry Kill introduced Cosgrove against an unseasonably snowy backdrop at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart, [Cosgrove] is truly the inspiration and the real head coach of the Minnesota Gophers,” Kill said.
The introduction was a surprise, as was the football team singing “Happy Birthday” with the crowd of nearly 2,300 joining in.
The University’s Colleges Against Cancer chapter, a group affiliated with the American Cancer Society, organized the 12-hour event that ran from Friday night into Saturday morning.
This year’s event had about 500 more people than last year, with 164 teams, which raised more than $177,000 for cancer research.
Colleges Against Cancer President Katie Thibert and Vice President Tyler Cowart said the event’s move to TCF increased the presence of Relay for Life at the University.
Biochemistry student Tim Isdahl, who was the captain of team “Sole Train,” was attending the event for the fourth time.
Isdahl was diagnosed with testicular cancer right before his 16th birthday in January. He was cancer-free April 20 of that year.
Isdahl, whose mother is also a cancer survivor, said the Luminaria Ceremony is his favorite part of the entire event
Silence falls as thousands walk a path lined with lighted bags with names and messages like “You’ll always be my hero.” The area is darkened to symbolize the moment when cancer comes into someone’s life.
The bags remain all night long, said Brea Atkinson, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.
“The lighted bags remind us that there is hope and light no matter what happens in the diagnosis,” she said.
Atkinson said participants continued to walk all night and had games and activities until the closing ceremony at 6 a.m.
Having the ceremony so early symbolizes the sunrise and that “no matter what, in the face of cancer, there is always hope,” Atkinson said. “Whether it’s hope of remission or being pain free, there is always hope.”
Cosgrove said events like Relay for Life and support from family, friends and Kill have been influential in his journey with cancer.
“[Kill] and I are able to have a relationship that’s a little deeper than a coach and a player,” he said, “and it goes more into a friendship than anything I’ve experienced with a coach before.”
Cosgrove, whose final chemotherapy treatment is set for Jan. 13, 2014, said being cancer-free doesn’t mean he’ll quit the fight against cancer for all.
“When something like cancer comes in and tries to tear your life away, it leaves a mark,” Cosgrove said. “It leaves a lot of scars, but more importantly, it leaves a story.”