Former NFL punter Josh Bidwell pays it forward
ROSEBURG - Few people have more reasons to be thankful than Josh Bidwell.
Financially secure after a dozen seasons as an NFL punter. Happily married with three young children. Deep in faith as a Christian. And, at 36, healthy and a dozen years removed from a debilitating bout with cancer.
It's essential to Bidwell's spirit, then, that he give back after having gotten so much.
The most public example was Bidwell's seventh annual Celebrity Golf Classic Friday at Roseburg Country Club.
Together with a Thursday night dinner and auction, Bidwell, a graduate of Douglas High in nearby Winston, raised more than $50,000 for three charities to which he has provided $250,000 since the event's inception.
This year's recipients are the Roseburg Community Cancer Center, Young Life and the region's youth sports programs.
'I'm so thankful to the people who have participated over the years,' Bidwell says. 'It's a massive amount of money in this community, especially in the poor economic times. It says a lot about the community.'
People from all areas of the state, though, took part in this year's festivities. Among the celebrities on hand were actor Gregory Harrison, former Blazers Jerome Kersey and Darrall Imhoff, bowling's Marshall Holman, ex-Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti, ex-major leaguer Kory Casto and former and current UO and Oregon State athletes such as Joey Harrington, Wes Mallard, Luke Jackson, Jordan Kent, Dino Philyaw, Alexis Serna, Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz.
Bidwell is one of the really good guys I've met in a lot of years in the sports writing business. I'm pretty sure he would be doing some charitable work even without his experience battling cancer.
That experience, though, crystallized Bidwell's inner drive to spend the rest of his life helping others.
I hadn't spoken with Bidwell since 2000, when he was in comeback mode after missing his rookie season with Green Bay following a bout with testicular cancer.
Bidwell had won the regular punting job and was preparing for the Packers' final preseason game in 1999 when he noticed a lump on a testicle.
'I had no idea about testicular cancer,' Bidwell says. 'I maybe had heard about Lance Armstrong's situation, but didn't know anything about it.'
Bidwell waited a couple of days before consulting one of Green Bay's team physicians. That night, he was on the operating table for surgery to remove the tumor.
By that time, Bidwell's girlfriend - now his wife, Bethany - was on a flight from Los Angeles.
'She was finishing training to serve with a church in Costa Rica, to work with orphanages there - a lifelong dream,' Bidwell says. 'Her flight to Costa Rica was scheduled the next day. She canceled it and got a flight that night to be with me (in Wisconsin).
'We've been married for 12 years, and she hasn't left my side since.'
They flew to Oregon, where Bidwell met with surgeon Bruce Lowe and Dr. Craig Nichols, the latter the supervisor of Armstrong's post-surgery treatment at Oregon Health and Science University. The next day, Bidwell underwent surgery to remove 45 cancerous lymph nodes from his midsection. What followed were three months of intensive chemotherapy.
The timing couldn't have been worse - and not just because he missed his chance to punt for the Packers as a rookie.
Bidwell was no longer on his father's health insurance plan. In the NFL, a player is guaranteed insurance benefits on the first day of the regular season.
'I was days away from that,' he says, 'so I had no insurance.'
Help came from everywhere, notably from teammates made aware of Bidwell's situation by place-kicker Ryan Longwell, a Bend native and Bidwell's best friend on the team.
'I didn't know the players all that well,' Bidwell says. 'About a month after the second surgery, Ryan called and said, 'I went around the locker room and told everybody your story. That you don't have insurance, you don't have any money, this is going to cost over $100,000.' He raised $60,000 just like that."
Packer players Gilbert Brown and Santana Dotson each cut a check for $10,000. Packer wives organized a gala dinner and auction that raised a five-figure donation. School children in Wisconsin raised $12,000 with a penny drive. An anonymous Oregon football fan opened an account at a local bank that helped put Bidwell's account beyond his medical bills.
'We were able to bless someone else with the surplus,' Bidwell says.
As Bidwell traveled between Eugene and Portland for his chemo treatments, he drove past a motel sign near the Gateway Mall that read, 'Pray for Josh Bidwell.'
'I had never met the owners,' he says. 'They were Oregon fans who had me in their thoughts. That was always encouragement for me to keep going.'
It's a big reason why Bidwell, who now makes his home in Eugene and works as a mortgage broker, keeps coming back to Roseburg to give to his home area.
'Our community cancer center here doesn't turn anyone away,' Bidwell says. 'If you have cancer and can't afford (surgery and recovery costs), you're going to get treatment at a state-of-the-art brand new facility. There are fundraising events and endowments in place to help cover those expenses.
'This is something I want the community here to have. It's more than an honor for me to help out.'
Bidwell, with a clean bill of health since 2000, enjoyed a productive NFL career with Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Washington, making the Pro Bowl in 2005. He retired after the 2010 season.
After his Pro Bowl season, Bidwell wrote an autobiography ('When It's Fourth and Long: Keeping the Faith, Overcoming the Odds and Life in the NFL') that chronicled his remarkable story.
'I spent the entire 2005 season sitting in our locker room, writing our book,' Bidwell says. 'It was fun to relive memories. It got to the point, midway through the season, (teammates) were coming out of meetings and asking, 'What are you doing? Are you a stockbroker?' I said, 'No, I'm writing a book.'
'Not everyone knows my story. I don't walk around wearing a T-shirt that says, 'I survived cancer.' "
The book is both informational and inspirational.
'The idea was to show I was equipped to handle what I didn't know I was ready to handle,' Bidwell says. 'At 23, I was diagnosed with advanced cancer. I was left wondering, 'Do I have what it takes to get through this?' '
With the help of many, Bidwell got through it in flying colors.
As you can imagine, foremost in his thoughts was the idea he might never be able to have children with Bethany. Now, they are the parents of Brady, 6; Aaron, 5, and Grace, 2.
'It is beyond my dreams,' Bidwell says.
Besides the Roseburg Community Cancer Center, Bidwell opts to contribute to Young Life, the Christian organization for teens. And being the product of a low-income broken home, he wants to provide for youths in sports.
'You want to give in areas you were most affected,' he says. 'I grew up in a tough childhood. The spiritual guidance and love I got from people outside our family helped build a great amount of character and integrity.
'We didn't have enough money to pay for the fees in sports when I was growing up. I didn't know until I was older it was generous parents who had a little extra who wanted to make sure a kid like Josh had an opportunity to play.
'What a shame it would be for these kids to miss out on something that provides a solid, teamwork-oriented mindset going into life. it's very important.'
Bidwell's foundation has purchased equipment and paid fees to sponsor youth teams, provided shoes for an entire youth football team and paid for an indoor baseball hitting facility.
'Anything to do with giving kids an opportunity to play a sport, that's been our drive,' he says.
Though now in the mortgage business, Bidwell plans to spend much time with charitable pursuits. He is thrilled he is in a business with which he will have time to spend raising his children, volunteering at their school and, of course, following his beloved Ducks on the gridiron.
Josh Bidwell has a rewarding life and a bright future. It's nice to see he is making the most of it.