Tackling Cancer: Sports and Medicine Team Up for The Cure Bowl

On the third Saturday every December since 2015, about 20,000 people file into the stands of Camping World Stadium for a college football game that might be easy to mistake for any other — if it weren’t for one bright pastel exception.

Here, the sea of sports fans is united by a vibrant pink, replacing what otherwise might be a crowd divided by the colors of team or sponsor allegiances. This is the AutoNation Cure Bowl, and the name says it all. This National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) game between teams from the American Athletic Conference and the Sunbelt Conference puts finding a cure for breast cancer first.

The game’s history dates back to 2007 when the board of directors for the nonprofit Orlando Sports Foundation first came together to host a college bowl match-up in Orlando. Senior Director Alan Gooch and his peers wanted to be sure their bowl would bring something lasting and meaningful to the community they all loved so much.

It all started when Dave Brown of ESPN called former University of Central Florida Athletic Director Keith Tribble, who had previously served as CEO of the Orange Bowl, about adding another bowl game to the Orlando market. One thing led to another, and former UCF football coach Alan Gooch was brought into the conversation. At an exploratory meeting, John Rhodes suggested he would like a new bowl game to raise money for breast cancer awareness. His sister, Laura Goldstein, had been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

Gooch had entered the meeting unconvinced of a need for a third college bowl game in Orlando. Today, he looks back at how this sobering news, and the words of other women in similar fights, sparked the moment of conviction about how the bowl would be handled — and how it would help.

“There were five women at the meeting with Laura, all with bandanas on their heads,” Gooch said. “I quickly learned that all five women were in the middle of undergoing chemo and fighting for their lives. They came up to me and we began talking.

“As they spoke about the potential of the bowl, I was thinking about the realities of the facts — the work to acquire TV and conference agreements, securing a title sponsor, how much time this was going to take — making excuses in my mind.”

Then Gooch was struck by a much harsher reality.

“As I was standing there — actually half-listening to them — I remember one of the women, who I now know as Susan Makowski, leaning in, locking eyes with me to get my full attention. She said, ‘Well, coach, I can see you have a lot going on. However, I can tell you this: Cancer takes no holiday.’ Right then I felt if there was going to be a third bowl, it had to be about that. The cause had to be first, not as an aside.”

The next day, he told his collaborators, “If we put the cause first, I am in.”

Bringing Teams Together

The mission statement that was created back in 2014 came easily. Kennan Burch, who is now fighting cancer himself, led sponsors and board members in a group branding session. It was decided the mission would be “Bringing teams together to find a cure for cancer.” The teams would include those both on and off the field. Those on the field were fighting for a championship win for their college. Those off the field were fighting for life.

The organization’s first partnership was with a foundation dedicated to a cure, with a mission matching that of the Orlando Sports Foundation.

“We really want to solve the root of the problem,” Gooch said. “Research is the only path to that solution, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation donates 91 percent of its proceeds directly to research. They also have an outstanding science board that vets all researchers and has benchmarks for the researchers to meet to receive funding. We liked the integrity of The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.”

Central Florida proved rich in resources for the mission. It soon came to Gooch ’s attention through a UCF Pegasus magazine article titled “UCF’s Cancer Assassin” that some of the research the organization was so excited about supporting was being conducted at UCF.

“We introduced the ‘Cancer Assassin’ UCF professor and cancer division head, Dr. Annette Khaled, to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which approved her as one of the researchers they would fund,” Gooch said.

Of the $3.6 million raised since the start of The Cure Bowl, $1.2 million has gone to Khaled’s research. The foundation distributes the remainder nationally and internationally.

“We are working to understand the normal processes in the body so we can get a better understanding of how cancer subverts those processes and go from there,” Khaled said. “The big need is in metastatic cancers, or cancers that spread throughout the body. What we’ve discovered in our lab has great applications for these stage 4 and stage 3 cancers.”

Right Time, Right Place

“There is an energy in this area,” Khaled said of Central Florida. “Everyone is so entrepreneurial, so willing to take risks and try something new. People may often be very skeptical of new discoveries, but here I’ve found they are more willing to try new things — and that’s how we’re going to advance.”

The Cure Bowl and its partners are exactly the kind of forward thinkers for the job. Along with title sponsor AutoNation and early presenting sponsor AdventHealth, other sponsors have proved to be passionate crusaders in the fight to find a cure, and the community has thrown its support behind the cause.

“It takes an army to put on these types of events, including those who serve on our board and our advisory board,” Gooch said. “There are also companies that have gone above and beyond.”

AutoNation alone has donated $3.3 million to the Cure Bowl since 2015 through its nationwide Drive Pink campaign — and that is on top of its title sponsorship of the game. Softwash Systems, a company that cleans roofs and building exteriors, has raised $103,000 for the Cure Bowl in three years. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association raised $17,000 in its own golf tournament, and JA Edwards of America roofing and repair company donated $15,000 this past year.

The cash and in-kind donations that come from those and many other organizations help cover the expenses of the event, allowing the Orlando Sports Foundation to donate more of the money raised to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

With an event of this scale, every act of generosity helps lower the cost and allow more the money raised to be funneled into the cause. This helps strengthen the hope of those doing the fighting. And no matter who scores highest in the football game, everybody wins.

About the author

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham is a writer and communications manager for i4 Business magazine. A Florida native who graduated from UCF with her BA in English literature in 2017, she looks forward to more opportunities to share the stories of those shaping Central Florida.

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