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Love, loss and purpose: Chris Draft and his endeavors with lung cancer awareness

The former Falcons linebacker tells a tale of love, loss and purpose; a tale dedicated to his late wife, Keasha, and her battle with lung cancer. 


In the final story of the Next Gen Storytellers project, former Falcons linebacker Chris Draft tells a tale of love, loss and purpose, a tale dedicated to his late wife, Keasha, and her battle with lung cancer.

Story by Iyanna Holley and Elijah Pinckney

ATLANTA -- In a league where it's often said that NFL stands for "Not For Long," Chris Draft had a highly commendable 12-year career as an NFL linebacker, five of them with Atlanta from 2000-2004. He started 52 of his 71 games with the Falcons, and 89 of his 150 NFL games overall. He didn't take his career for granted; every season was a challenge.

That was especially true in 2004, 2005 and 2007, when he was hospitalized several times with severe asthma. But in the midst of that turmoil, his greatest joy entered his life in 2006 when his cousin introduced Draft to his future wife, LaKeasha Rutledge.

"Meeting my wife was an amazing opportunity," said Draft, who was playing for the Carolina Panthers at that time. "2006 was my most enjoyable year in the NFL because she was there."

Before Draft met Rutledge, she had been an electrical engineer during the day and a Honey Bee dancer for the Charlotte Hornets at night. Several years after they met, she was still in excellent health. But while they were dating in 2010, Rutledge experienced shortness of breath and visited her primary care physician, who suggested a chest X-ray. Eventually, she was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer.

Because she was in pharmaceutical sales when she was diagnosed, Rutledge had great connections among her peers in the medical field who rallied around her through her lung cancer journey.

Draft and Rutledge were married on Nov. 27, 2011.

One month later, LaKeasha Rutledge Draft lost her battle with cancer.

The day before their wedding, LaKeasha, who preferred to be called Keasha, suggested that instead of receiving wedding presents, they would ask their family and friends to support their foundation, Team Draft. It was an initiative of the Chris Draft Family Foundation that he had started in 2006 to empower families to live healthy lifestyles.

He loved the idea.

Team Draft is a lung cancer research program and fundraising initiative inspired by Keasha's diagnosis. Despite its severity, Keasha chose to continue living life, to smile, and be a light to everyone who crossed her path. She decided to live the rest of her life with joy and purpose to raise money and awareness about the severity of lung cancer.

The Drafts used their connections and resources to empower families to fight against lung cancer. By visiting and sharing his story with over 130 cancer centers across the nation, Draft has taken the lead with this movement to educate the public about the seriousness of lung cancer.

After his wife's death, Draft had to reaffirm his commitment to what he and his wife started. Draft said he had to accept three things: "Can I accept that nothing that I do is going to bring her back? Can I be happy for people doing well? Am I willing to fight for more people to benefit?"

By embracing these three realities, Draft is able to feel joy for others who have a chance to survive lung cancer, advocate for members of underserved communities that need better access to medical resources and raise national awareness about the disease.

In 2017, the Team Draft Foundation launched a Super Bowl challenge that had lung cancer survivors represent an NFL team and compete in trying to raise the most money for lung cancer research and initiatives. The winner won a chance to attend the Super Bowl, and 90% of the earnings were donated to lung cancer centers and research programs.

Fast forward a few years later, and Draft found himself looking for leaders who were passionate and willing to advocate for lung cancer awareness when he met lung cancer survivor Heidi Onda and her husband, Pierre Onda.

Heidi began to visit local cancer centers asking questions about the lack of awareness regarding the severity of lung cancer. After one conversation with an expert in lung cancer research, she was shocked with the doctor's response that they "simply do not have a plan for it."

Angered by this revelation, Heidi came home and asked her husband, who is a primary care physician, to make her a big white ribbon out of wood and display it on their front door. By deciding that she would not wait for others to show that lung cancer matters, Heidi challenged other survivors to display their own white ribbons throughout their community.

This was done by tying white ribbons around trees, displaying them on doors and being vocal about a change that needed to happen. Due to Draft and the Ondas' initiatives, these white ribbons are hanging in over 35 countries worldwide.

Draft said the white ribbons "bring light and love," as well as the camaraderie required of lung cancer survivors to care for one another, no matter the circumstance.

The advancement of lung cancer research and treatment options have greatly improved since the passing of Draft's wife in 2011. For Draft, he believes the rapid increase of research and treatments relating to lung cancer will continue, and he hopes to keep developing a "dream team" of individuals who fight for this vital cause.

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