LOWELL, Mich. (WOOD) — The second Friday in September is just another night for high school football among numerous cities in Michigan. In the small town of Lowell, it has become much more than that.
The Lowell Pink Arrow Project has had a profound impact on the community for nearly a decade, and the ninth annual game to raise awareness for cancer is slated for Friday. The unbeaten Red Arrows will face visiting Ottawa Hills.
The Pink Arrow Project began in 2008 and was the brainchild of head football coach Noel Dean. Lowell players wear pink jerseys with the names of loved ones who have been affected by cancer on the back.
“I had an idea that we should be doing more than what we were doing at that time,” Dean said. “It was just an idea that evolved. It was just simple, and it took off. … I don’t think anyone could imagine being what it is today, but I think it is what it is today because of all the right reasons at the beginning, selfless acts of kindness for other people.”
The Pink Arrow Project raised $93,000 for charities in the first year.
In 2009, the community’s goal was to raise money and renovate the Senior Neighbor Building that would become the home to Gilda’s Club, which is known nationally for its free cancer support community.
Through the years, the initiative has grown. To date, $1.5 million has been raised. The event spawned other communities and sports teams to follow Lowell’s blueprint.
Dean said his players understand the importance of the project and the good that has come from it.
“They realize the impact of it, and a lot of these guys were in third and fourth grade when we started it,” he said. “It is coming full circle for a lot of them and it has impacted them from their early childhood.
“I think they get it, and it really means a lot to them,” he continued. “They realize that there are so many other people in life, and giving of yourself to greater causes is the one thing that is kind of missing in our society today. It really helps them to feel like they are a bigger part of a greater good, which is what football and Pink Arrow really is.”
There are 10 players on this year’s varsity team who have been personally affected, either by family members who have lost battles to cancer or continue to fight the devastating disease.
Lowell senior safety Sam Russell lost his mother to pancreatic cancer when he was only 6. His dad, Patrick Russell, is on the coaching staff. They moved to Lowell the first year the Pink Arrow Project was organized. Sam Russell was in fourth grade at the time.
“We are tremendously proud of the program and what Noel Dean has done to bring this to Lowell,” Sam Russell said. “When I was younger and I experienced Pink Arrow, I felt like a lot of this happens to a lot of other people. This isn’t just a freak accident, and a lot of other people are going through the same stuff I’m going through. It helped me wrap my mind around it.”
Sam Russell represented his mother, Rebecca, last year. This year, he will wear the name of another mother in the community who is battling cancer.
“Even if you are lucky enough to have no family members or friends that are affected by cancer, you are emotional,” Sam Russell said of presenting of the jerseys to families after the game. “You are giving the jersey away and it’s emotional, but it’s especially emotional for people that it is relevant to.”
He said the football game itself provides special meaning.
“Even just playing the game, you feel like you’re not playing for your teammates like you usually are,” he said. “You are not playing for yourself or your coaches, you are playing for the person on your back. And I think that’s really a special thing.”