Donald Driver lost his father and best friend to the disease
His father, Marvin Driver Jr., died of lung cancer. His best friend, Bryant Pretlow, who introduced him to his wife and became the godfather to his children, was stricken with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and died in his arms.
Those experiences inspired Driver to participate in an overnight campout in June for pediatric cancer patients and their families, totaling about 200 people. Hosted by Northwestern Mutual, the event took place at Lambeau Field, the iconic home of the Green Bay Packers, with whom Driver won a Super Bowl and made three Pro Bowls.
For children who courageously spend days in hospitals battling to survive, the campout — dubbed the Ultimate Campout Fighting Childhood Cancer — is a welcome break.
“As a father, you just want your kid to be happy and enjoy life, and sometimes they don’t get the opportunity because of this disease,” Driver, who won Season 14 of Dancing with the Stars in 2012 with partner Peta Murgatroyd, tells PEOPLE. “This gives them the opportunity to be kids again.”
The event featured games, a movie (Ralph Breaks the Internet) and special perks: The children each saw their names on the stadium scoreboard and each got to take the “Lambeau Leap,” the famed touchdown celebration in which Packer players jump into the stands to be embraced.
“A lot of them were in awe,” says Driver. “For me to be a part of that, to touch their lives and let them know people out there really care, it was really a blessing.”
Driver threw passes to each child — and didn’t stop until every kid had caught one.
He recalls a touching moment with a mom who said her son was suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the disease that killed Pretlow.
“She appreciated me being a part of this, knowing her son was a huge Packer fan who loved me,” says Driver. “And the emotions start to set in. She knew that this day, they were going to have one of the happiest moments of their lives.”
Last year’s campout, the first of its kind, took place in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, another storied football venue, says Northwestern Mutual spokesperson Elizabeth DeLuca. Next year it will be held at another famous stadium, according to DeLuca, who says the bank has donated $20 million to combat childhood cancer, which paid for 240,000 hours of research.
According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children, yet only 4 percent of federal government research goes to study pediatric cancer.
The emotional and financial cost for families of those stricken with the disease is high. According to the National Children’s Cancer Society, the average cost of treating childhood cancer is $833,000.
Driver, reflecting on the event, says, “For one day, it took that burden off those individuals and families.”