On November 27, 2011, former NFL star Chris Draft married the love of his life, professional dancer LaKeasha Rutledge, in an intimate and beautiful wedding ceremony surrounded by loved ones. Exactly one month later, on December 27, his wife lost her brief battle with stage 4 lung cancer, and he sat by her side as she took her last breaths.

When we shared Draft’s heartbreaking story with you, the outpouring of support and well wishes was tremendous. Then came your questions. What can you do to help? How could this happen? A healthy, 38-year-old woman whom friends described as a “fitness nut,” Rutledge never smoked a day in her life. Her diagnosis came just a year before her death, and seemingly out of nowhere. Draft, who’s continuing his fight for a cure through their organization Team Draft, must now begin to heal. ESSENCE.com sat down with him to learn what the couple’s last year together was like, and how Draft’s Valentine would have wanted to be remembered.

ESSENCE.COM: Since your wife’s passing, you’ve shown such strength and shared so much of her life with the world. Why did you choose to share her story in this way?

CHRIS DRAFT: We put the pictures up [online] so people could really see the life in her, not just how she passed away. We want people to see that her faith allowed her to live before her diagnosis, and to continue to live with it, and find the joy in each day. Even when you get bad news, you have to find the joy in life, which is definitely not easy. Most of the pictures in the montage people have seen are from the past year. She was still enjoying her friends, and still enjoying her family. Yes, it was a little different with cancer being there, but at the same time, you find a way to enjoy it. That’s where you’re at, you know?

ESSENCE: You both stayed positive throughout her battle. How were you able to do that, after learning of her diagnosis?
DRAFT: It was never, “Oh, I’m just going to smile through it.” Keasha was like, “I’m going to fight. We’re going to do what we have to do to go after this.” Stage 4 lung cancer is not a good diagnosis. I mean, the numbers are horrible, and to get that news without even having a sign beforehand, makes it that much tougher. She knew she had great friends, and great family, and a great support system, and she said, “Okay, so what do I have to do to fight? We’re going to fight it each and every day.” Getting the full diagnosis, and knowing exactly what we were fighting, was a very hard process. She did such a great job of really looking at it like, “Hey, I have to do this in order to have a chance to be better.” She stuck with that and continued to smile, even after she went to appointment after appointment.

ESSENCE: Share a favorite memory of your time with Keasha with us.
DRAFT: I played an away game once, and she got three of her friends to help her bring this big ol’ live Christmas tree into my condo as a surprise. I came back from a long, tough day of playing, and I walk in, and I was like, “Oh my goodness.” There was the most beautiful, perfect tree right there in my living room. It was the absolute example of what it means to actually be playing in the league and still have your woman right there with you, supporting you, and it was a tremendous feeling. When you’re away sometimes your family can’t be there, or you travel for holidays and they have to come to you, but she made it where Christmas was there, and I was home. It was so beautiful. I was looking at the pictures the other day and the tree was so big — actually bigger than I remember. She liked surprises. That same Christmas she put together this scrapbook for me that had pictures from the season, articles that talked about my community work, and photos from my family. It was perfect. The great thing about her was that she really paid attention to the little things. She appreciated all of who I am, not just me, the football player.

ESSENCE: What types of things did you enjoy doing together?
DRAFT: She’d find a new place to go to dinner, and be sure we went there, or we’d just take a romantic walk in the park — as long as we were spending time together, that’s what mattered. I wouldn’t call us homebodies, but we definitely loved a good movie or meal. We’d always go to the movies or enjoy a meal together. If she was gonna cook, she’d cook from scratch, and really cook. She made the best red velvet cake ever. She added to her arsenal a carrot cake too. The red velvet was so good, it made you just want to eat a whole bunch of it. It’d have to be a special occasion for her to make one, though, because you just couldn’t have that much cake around – it was just too good.

ESSENCE: Was your wedding day everything you dreamed it would be? You both looked so happy in your video.
DRAFT: I wanted her to just be able to really enjoy it. That was my only focus. She was able to get up. She was able to walk. She was able to dance. Dancing was just her. Her 88-year-old grandmother got up at our wedding and she started dancing, and she got Keasha back up and she started dancing too. The weather was perfect. It was 70 degrees on Thanksgiving weekend – wow. It seemed like everything just worked itself out for her. It was so beautiful. Her friends and family were all able to be there. It was a good day — a good weekend.

ESSENCE: If you could send out a message to Keasha this Valentine’s Day, what would you want her to know?
DRAFT: [Long pause.] Keasha, I‘ll always love you. We’re gonna keep fighting. We’re gonna keep fighting! We’re gonna keep inspiring people and help to change people’s lives, I promise.

ESSENCE: How would she want you to live your life and honor her legacy?
DRAFT: She wanted to be an inspiration to other people. She really wanted to try to make sure that people saw her for who she was and to see a woman with a beautiful spirit. I have to finish making sure everything is in order as I move forward. She would want me to be happy, to smile, and to move forward and stay close with her family and friends. That’s what I’m doing.

ESSENCE: What’s next for Team Draft?
DRAFT: Right now, with Team Draft our goal is to change the face of lung cancer. We want people to see that anybody can get lung cancer, and the cure for it is just as critical as breast cancer, or any cancer. We’ve got to find a way to identify it earlier. She was this strong, healthy woman, who was all of a sudden short of breath. Had she caught it during stage 3, instead of 4, it could have really increased her chances of survival. We’re going to celebrate her life and the type of person she was and we want others to grab hold of her spirit and make a difference. There’s no clear answer in terms of what can be done to identify it early enough. Keasha didn’t smoke, she was a dancer, she was fit, and she was healthy. That’s why people need to see faces like hers and continue to be inspired. We want to build an excitement about making a difference. I want to put a picture of Keasha right in front of researchers’ faces, so when the doctors and scientists are doing their research, they see her right there smiling, and it can hopefully give them that little extra push. If we could push things ahead, and give someone else another week, it makes a huge difference. Team Draft was launched at our wedding. She wanted to fight. She wanted to stand up. Continuing this allows her to do that.

Roughly 25 percent of lung cancer cases show no symptoms at all. Tumors can be found through a chest X-ray. For more information on lung cancer and to learn how you can help spread Rutledge’s message of hope, contact Team Draft today.

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