With the help of Will Ferrell, an old friend is overcoming the odds and giving hope to others
At first glance, Craig Pollard and Will Ferrell don't have a lot in common. They do, however, happen to share a common bond. Earlier this year, while Ferrell was riding high following a string of box office successes, Pollard was lying in his hospital bed after emerging from a four-week coma. The decision he was facing was enormous, but brutally necessary. Doctors wanted to remove his feet, just above the ankle. The medication used to keep Pollard alive after a strep infection began shutting down his organs had caused his extremities to swell beyond recognition resulting in life-threatening circulation problems.
Pollard had faced death before. During his sophomore year in high school, he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told him he would miss the entire baseball season. It was a devastating blow to a young man for whom baseball was a passion, so he set out to prove the doctors wrong. He defied the doctor's timetable and returned to the field that season. On one occasion, he played two games in one day while receiving radiation treatment in between. He collected three hits in the second game and his teammates asked if their bats could go with him to his next radiation treatment.
Pollard is a self-described "over achiever." His baseball ability improved to the point that he was able to attend USC after being recruited by legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. During his sophomore year, the cancer returned, resulting in more chemotherapy and experimental treatments that drained his enthusiasm for the game.
"I just realized that there was more to life than baseball," Pollard said. "I wanted to get back out there again, just to prove that I could. I can remember sitting there one day and thinking, 'I'm done with baseball.' I was weak. There were younger kids who were better than me. It was time."
He returned to USC to complete his studies and had three life-impacting experiences. He realized his girlfriend, Stacy, would become his wife, he met a fraternity pledge named Will Ferrell, and he decided to write his senior business paper on a program designed to raise funds for cancer-surviving students.
"The summer before my senior year, I spent time at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times," Pollard said. "These kids were coming up to me and they were blown away that I was in college and I had just gone through a bone marrow transplant. At that time, a lot of insurances didn't cover those treatments. The parents couldn't even think of saving money for college."
Pollard gained nonprofit status for his Cancer for College foundation and held his first event in 1993 - a handful of friends getting together for a round of golf and a barbecue in his backyard.
Each year the event has grown, but it didn't completely take flight until Ferrell made his first appearance a few years back, which coincided with his rise in popularity on "Saturday Night Live."
"I didn't get to know Will very well until I returned to school from having cancer the second time," Pollard said. "We ran in different crowds. I was more of the jock, conservative. Will was crazy, flamboyant and absolutely the life of the fraternity house. He was a big prankster. You could see that his comedy was very calculated."
Ferrell's recollection of their first meeting is a little different.
"He was probably yelling at me," Ferrell recalled during this year's event held in September at the Temecula Creek Golf Resort. "No, definitely yelling at me. He was an active and I was a pledge, so I was beneath him. He got to humiliate me and all those sorts of things."
Pollard and some of his friends supported Ferrell through his earliest days in show business. The group often made up more than half the audience at some of his first stand-up comedy gigs.
"I never really had to ask him to be a part of this thing," Pollard said of Ferrell's golf tournament support. "His involvement just kind of came naturally. I remember, it was about five or six years ago and Will had just finished shooting 'Old School.' He was recognizable from SNL, but not a superstar yet. He was telling people about having to film this naked running scene and cracking us all up. The next year, he came back, the movie was a monster hit and I think he had a couple more movies under his belt. He provided us a check for $25,000. It was awesome."
This year, with Ferrell climbing toward the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom, his involvement increased dramatically.
"Will and his wife, Viveca, had said they would be at the tournament this year," Pollard said. "Will told me he was shooting these Sprint commercials and was going to be able to send an extra $10,000. We talked again later and he began apologizing, saying he was way off. I'm thinking there was no extra money but, in reality, he was actually sending a check for $100,000."
At this year's event, Ferrell arrived early, signed every autograph, posed for every picture and answered everyone's questions.
"I know a lot of people support this charity because of Will's involvement," Pollard said. "There are three things celebrities can do with charity. They can give their time, they can give their money or they can do both. Thankfully, Will does both. He's got a good heart. He's the same person I knew in college. My wife and I are thankful that he's here."
Postponing or canceling this year's golf tournament was never an option in Pollard's mind. Even as the wounds on his hands, which required extensive skin graphing, and the daunting task of adapting to his prosthetic feet, which he likened to "walking in ski boots," he vowed to tee it up.
"There is nothing that I couldn't do before," Pollard said. "I just do it a little slower and maybe not as well," Pollard said.
It's that attitude that drives him in his quest to help others.
"I can remember waiting to go in to have my legs amputated, and I told my wife that we needed to turn this into a positive," Pollard said. "We need to give scholarships to amputees. She looked at me like I was crazy, but that's exactly what we've done. Things happen in life. You just have to stay positive and keep moving forward. I wanted to show my kids how to handle adversity."
The world is starting to take notice. Two pharmaceutical companies have offered money to support his cause. Pollard's Vista-based company, Global Tour Golf, has underwritten most of the expenses incurred by the charity. Fed Ex, a longtime supporter, is also on board.
"You know, I get asked to participate in a fair amount of charities," Ferrell said. "Obviously, there is the personal connection with a friend running the event, but there is more. To see the faces of the people and know the money is directly affecting their life is amazing. This [tournament] is one of the most special nights of the year for me."
And everyday is special for Pollard.
"There is no joy in being sad or depressed," he said. "You don't gain anything from it. I choose to be positive. I don't want anyone's pity. I'm happy to be alive. I'm happy to see my wife and kids."
Cancer for College was able to donate $53,000 in college scholarships to students after this year's event.
"My goal is to build up the funds to the point where the scholarships are given off the interest," Pollard said. "I have a dream that we play this event at Pebble Beach, we have a bunch of celebrities involved and we tell every kid who has ever had cancer that wants to go to college that we have money for them. In a way, I feel like this is my legacy. You know there have been a lot of nights where I've sat up talking to God. I promised myself that I was going to help other people. That's what I want to do." n