Cooper Kupp. Matthew Stafford. Aaron Donald. Joe Burrow. Dr. Dre.
These are some of the folks people will remember when they look back on Super Bowl LVI, which wrapped up the National Football League season this past Sunday. But for me, that most American of holidays will always belong to my friend Joe.
For 51 or so weeks a year, Joe focused his energy on his day jobs: attorney, father and husband. And he was quite good at all three.
He ran a successful solo legal practice in Norman, where he specialized in insurance litigation. But, contrary to lawyer stereotypes, Joe had an enormous heart. As a result, he often took up cases on behalf of people who really needed a bulldog in their corner. He especially enjoyed using his skills and tenacity to help the Davids of the world take on the Goliaths, even if it didn’t benefit him financially.
Outside the courtroom, Joe was in his element on the court. The tennis court, that is, where, despite a knee injury that lingered from his high school football days, he forever sought out “old man” games. He also loved teaching the game to his two sons.
Joe and his wife, Lisa, had a passion for traveling. As the boys grew, they took every opportunity to show them the world. And Joe – who, as they say, never met a stranger – used each trip as a chance to grow his circle of friends (not infrequently to the mortification of his kids).
And then there was the Super Bowl.
The week leading up to the big game began with an email invitation to Joe and Lisa’s annual party. It purported to come from Lisa, but with its mock braggadocio (all related to the much-hyped ping-pong tournament that concluded the evening), its authorship could not have been clearer.
Come Sunday night, Joe welcomed every guest as if they were long-lost and much-missed family members. Then he required each to complete a two-page form filled with absurd “prop” bets. (“Will the singing of the national anthem take more than 1 minute, 35 seconds?” “What will be the first animal to appear in an ad after the kickoff?”)
For the rest of the evening, he circulated throughout the crowd without stop, his laugh ringing above the din. And when the game had wound down, ringmaster that he was, Joe whipped all kids into a frenzy with his breathless promotion of “The greatest … ping-pong tournament … ever!”
That’s the way it went pretty much every year. Kids would grow. Marriages (including mine) might end. But no matter what was happening in life, Joe would bring us all together. And make us laugh.
But in 2018, a few months after the Philadelphia Eagles upset the New England Patriots, Joe collapsed. Doctors found a tumor pushing on his brain. They removed the growth, but it was a metastatic melanoma, the byproduct of a skin cancer that had taken hold throughout his body.
Joe was only 59, and despite aggressive treatment, the cancer spread quickly. When I visited him at home, he was simultaneously the person I knew – cracking jokes, reminiscing about our past misadventures – and a weakened, sometimes confused shadow of my dear friend.
He died a week later.
At the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, where my job involves providing support to scientists who research cancer and other illnesses, a day doesn’t pass where I don’t consider the human toll of diseases. In early February, when it seems that just about every other American is getting excited about the big game, my thoughts turn to Joe.
Just this month, another Joe, President Biden, announced he’s reigniting the Cancer Moonshot. This effort seeks to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years.
While this idea isn’t novel, it’s still great news. Additional funding for research and the development of new treatments and interventions will be key if we’re going to make inroads against the disease that remains our country’s second-leading killer. In a year, its victims in the U.S. alone could fill SoFi stadium more than eight times over.
I think my friend Joe would applaud this effort. He would, of course, know that success is far from guaranteed. But he always loved an underdog.
Adam Cohen is OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel. He can be reached at email@example.com. Get On Your Health delivered to your inbox — sign up here.