EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Vikings players past and present joined the American Cancer Society to host the fourth annual "A Crucial Catch" luncheon on Tuesday at Wildfire to honor area breast cancer survivors.
Teddy Bridgewater, Antone Exum Jr. and Jerome Felton, three Vikings with family members who survived breast cancer, were joined by teammates Joe Berger, Brandon Fusco, Everson Griffen and Marcus Sherels and former Vikings David Dixon (G, 1994-2004), E.J. Henderson (LB, 2003-11), Bob Lurtsema (DE, 1971-76), Stu Voight (TE, 1970-80) and Rickey Young (RB, 1978-83).
"I was really looking forward to being part of this today," Bridgewater said. "I appreciate the women coming out today, allowing us to celebrate their health. They're much tougher than what we are, especially with what they went through in their lives so I just appreciate them coming out today."
Bridgewater's mother, Rose Murphy, was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago when he was just 14. It was tough for him to see the struggles caused by the disease but inspirational to see her strength. Murphy shared her story with others, distributed pink ribbons and sounded the ceremonial Gjallarhorn before Sunday's game against Detroit.
Exum was in seventh grade when his mother, Barbara Exum, was diagnosed with breast cancer. His mother, however, did not inform her children of the news because their grandmother, Carreanna Exum, passed away because of cancer shortly before Barbara Exum's diagnosis.
"She didn't want to put that heartache and stress on me and my sister, so at that age, we would have thought that since my grandmother had just died from cancer that my mom was about to pass away at any moment as well," Exum said. "We didn't have a chance to be there for her because she didn't want to put that in our life at that point."
A major component of the league-wide "A Crucial Catch: Annual Screening Saves Lives" campaign is to emphasize the importance of prevention and early detection in defeating the disease. Exum said that message was reinforced Tuesday.
"I can't speak enough about that because that's kind of what saved my mom," Exum said. "She went in and got checked and found out that she was diagnosed with cancer, but they were able to catch it at such an early age that she didn't have to do the chemo and things like that."
View images relating to the Vikings promoting Breast Cancer Awareness and the NFL's "Think Pink" initiative from the Oct. 12 game vs. the Lions.
Exum said his mother underwent a mastectomy, and later opted to have the surgical procedure on her other breast when early indicators showed a likelihood that the cancer could return. He said she plans to have reconstructive surgery after the season and greatly enjoyed being an honorary captain at the coin toss before Sunday's game.
"She thought that was the coolest deal," Exum said. "She's still texting me about it today, saying how much of a blessing it was, how cool it was. I tease her, 'You were an NFL captain before I was.' It's crazy where playing this game can take you and some of the opportunities it can give you. I can't thank the Vikings enough for putting my mom in that situation and giving her the opportunity to do something special. That was a real special day for her."
Felton said his 34-year-old sister, Maike Bachmann, has been in remission since January but is continuing to take medicine. Felton said he was at training camp in 2013, sort of secluded from the world beyond football, when his sister texted him that she needed to speak to him about something important.
"I was able to talk to her, and it was a devastating thing to me because I'm so close to my sister," Felton said. "But I know her. I know how strong she is and how stubborn she can be so I knew she'd get through it. She obviously had my support. I never thought for a second that she wouldn't beat it, and I'm glad she did."
Felton said he enjoyed meeting survivors and sitting with one named Christine during the luncheon. He plans to attend the event annually.
The fact that three players on one NFL team have close family members affected by breast cancer is only one example of how wide-reaching the disease is.
Tamara Peterson, Sr. Director of Community Events with the American Cancer Society, said more than 230,000 women will be affected by breast cancer in 2014 and more than 40,000 cases will be fatal.
"Breast cancer is still the number one diagnosed cancer for women behind skin cancer and is the second leading cancer death in women," Peterson said, "so it's really important for everyone to make sure they're talking with their doctors and getting all the prevention they can do and all the screenings that are available to them.
"We're so grateful for the Vikings partnership with us in the "A Crucial Catch" program," Peterson added. "We've been partners the last four years, and they've been so great, the team and the players coming out to raise awareness."
Sue Zelickson, of Minneapolis, was diagnosed four years ago, "never dreaming that it would happen" to her.
"When it happened, I was shocked, but I got fantastic help from the wonderful doctors in the Twin Cities. The Piper Breast Center is incredible," Zelickson said. "It was an experience that I hope everybody I know doesn't have to go through, but if you had the experience that I had, it was all positive. I'm cancer free, I've never felt better in my life. I was running a few days after the operation."
Zelickson stressed the importance of early detection through keen attention and acquiring as much information about the disease as possible.
"It's very important," Zelickson said. "If you see anything abnormal, check it out because there are many ways that they're detecting cancers, and the research with the money raised from the American Cancer Society, all phases of cancer, it's so important because it's light years from what it used to be."
She said it's great to see support provided by the Vikings organization and players and coaches who wore pink accents on their gear during Sunday's game to raise awareness, honor survivors and tribute those who have died from the disease.
"I'm 80 years old, and I never, ever would think that a Viking would wear pink shoes," Zelickson said. "It's amazing. The support we get from all the athletes, the celebrities, our neighbors, from everybody is what helps keep the people that are affected with cancer positive and thinking positive."