PRIOR LAKE, Minn. – There weren't many dry eyes in the house Friday night.
But the emotional evening also delivered a message of strength and resiliency that not only energized but drew together an entire audience.
As part of the NFL's Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer campaign, the Vikings partnered with the American Cancer Society to welcome approximately 200 individuals who have been affected by cancer to a special event hosted by Mystic Lake.
Survivors, those currently battling the disease, as well as loved ones who have lost and/or supported friends and family members during their fight, were invited to a reception where they could meet Vikings Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Paul Krause, followed by a special program.
Vikings teammates Kyle Rudolph and C.J. Ham were featured as guest speakers, along with Golden Gophers placeholder and four-time cancer survivor Casey O'Brien. Emcee for the evening was Alexa Score, who since 2006 has been living with and being treated for chronic myeloid leukemia.
Ham gained a new perspective on the Crucial Catch initiative when his mother, Tina, was diagnosed in 2018 with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. After she underwent surgery, doctors discovered that Tina's cancer was actually stage 4.
"The outcomes of that aren't the greatest," Ham said. "But it's been almost a year now, and she's doing such a good job. She's fighting, and her attitude towards the whole thing has been very moving."
Ham shared a poignant message and was honest and open about the difficulty of processing the initial news.
"I find myself plenty of times just trying to deal with it on my own, feeling bad and kind of forgetting that my mother's the one going through this," Ham said. "There was about a week or so where it was really hitting me and I was struggling, and then I talked to her on the phone and realized, 'She's still your mom. She's still the exact person. Her attitude is still the same. She's still joyful.'
"Her strength during this whole thing really helps bring us together [as a family] and really helps us realize that we can do this," Ham added.
Following Ham's time on stage, Rudolph and O'Brien took time sharing their respective stories and passions.
The Vikings tight end spoke about his commitment to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, which stems from watching at a young age his younger brother, also named Casey, be treated for pediatric cancer.
"Cancer is something that's affected everyone in some way, shape or form," Rudolph said. "To be able to bring out some of the cancer survivors and their families and their loved ones, to get together, to be in a group [where] they get to share their stories and draw strength from one another [is incredible]."
O'Brien, who was honored at Sunday's game against the Eagles as the Vikings Honorary Captain, exuded positivity in sharing his own experience with cancer.
Following the structured panel discussion, audience members were able to participate in a Q&A. Several people currently battling cancer asked O'Brien about his journey.
"I knew I was coming in and would get a chance to speak with a lot of survivors and people that are going through or have been involved with cancer," O'Brien told Vikings.com. "It's a special group of people, and it's a special community that I'm a part of. I was excited to have a chance to get in front of the room and share my story and offer any words of advice.
"That's something that I kind of had in the back of my head – 'When I beat this, I want to be a person that can give back,' " he added. "To feel that and watch it unfold, it means the world to me."
David Benson, Executive Vice President of the North Region of the American Cancer Society, called the evening "inspirational" and pointed out that 16.9 million cancer survivors are living in the United States right now.
"I think when other cancer survivors hear a story like Casey's, they can't help but feel like, 'Wow, I'm a part of something much bigger than myself, and it's something that I want to be a part of. I want to help fight back; I want to help do something bigger than anything I thought possible on my own,' " Benson said.
"The stories that were told brought out the emotion of everybody," he added. "But I think what that ultimately does, it just gets people passionate about this cause. And that's what we need. We need people to be passionate about fighting cancer – and I think tonight really did that."
Vikings players visited The Richard M. Schulze Family American Cancer Society Hope Lodge where they served a meal and spent time with residents and their caregivers.
Vikings Visit Patients at Hope Lodge | by Craig Peters
The quilts hanging from the walls are more than wall décor.
They are shrouds of support, with different patches declare that cancer cannot…
Conquer the spirit
Invade the soul
Vikings players and legends saw the quilts when they visited the Richard M. Schulze Family American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in Minneapolis last week to serve a dinner and spend time with cancer patients and caregivers.
The facility that opened in 2007 has 42 guest rooms where cancer patients and caregivers are able to stay at no personal cost while they are here from out of town to undergo treatment. All but two rooms were in use on Tuesday night, when current Vikings Ifeadi Odenigbo and Aviante Collins joined Vikings Legends Tuineau Alipate, Autry Beamon and Ben Williams in serving up plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, broccoli and salad in a communal dining area that is flanked by large kitchen spaces.
Although the dining space is ample, the feeling was one of coziness fostered by the genuine empathy that each patient has for each other's diagnosis and journey during treatment.
Collins described the scene as "one big family."
"Two of my uncles passed away from cancer, so it really does mean a lot to me," Collins said. "Being able to come back and help and participate in the Crucial Catch with the NFL, I'm glad they [expanded] it to multiple kinds of cancer."
Added Williams: "Knowing the fight that some of these people go through, it really touches home, because it shows you how thankful you should be every day. How upbeat some of these people are in the condition that they're in, it's very moving."
Joel Varela, who is from Superior, Wisconsin, is undergoing treatment. The relationships that Varela has formed with other Hope Lodge guests is something that he said he will "cherish forever."
"It's a blessing. Really, to take advantage of this full facility, is beyond words," Varela said. "Almost instantaneously since I walked through the door, it's been a family setting. I started my treatment back in May with chemotherapy for five days every three weeks. I did three rounds of chemotherapy, and now I'm in the radiation stage, so I'm here for a month-and-a-half. I now call other people that stay here my family, my extended family."
Varela said he sometimes considers himself "little bit of a whiner" when he hears stories shared by other patients.
"We sit down together and praise our good Lord to help us through it all, one day at a time," he said.
Senior Manager Mary Wiles, who has worked at Hope Lodge since it opened, said guests' stays range from one day to nearly a year and come to the Twin Cities from within the state and as far as China and Ethiopia for treatments. Wiles offered a tour of the public spaces in the facility that include a craft room that also hosts support group meetings, an exercise space and an entertainment room with a large-screen television and theater-style recliners.
Benson, who joined other American Cancer Society staff members in helping serve plates and share smiles, said the Hope Lodge is an "amazing resource" because it saves patients from having to pay for hotels and because most people describe it as "a home away from home."
"We strive for that," Benson said.