Super Bowl = cancer cure? Yes, says Melangton

2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few years ago, Allison Melangton dropped off her car for servicing and hopped into the back of a courtesy shuttle heading to downtown Indianapolis.

Sitting in front of her were three men. When a radio commercial came on over the van's speakers, a few-second bit promoting the city's future Super Bowl, one of the guys turned to the others and said, "Hey, can you believe they hired a chick to run our Super Bowl?"

2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee

Allison Melangton is just the second woman to serve as CEO of the Super Bowl Host Committee.

Melangton kept quiet, her mind churning. The men continued talking: their collective surprise (a woman running the world's most important football organizing committee!) outweighed any clear-cut negativity. But Melangton listened and considered her options. She could interrupt the conversation from the back seat, she could offer one of the men her business card while stepping out of the van, or she could keep quiet and allow her work -- which she was still in the middle of -- to eventually speak for her.

When the shuttle arrived downtown, Melangton slid quietly out of the van, saying nothing, and walked to her office ... the one reserved for the President and CEO of the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee. It's in this capacity that Melangton hopes to deliver to the world a day of worry-free entertainment.

On Wednesday, Melangton was sitting inside her office, recalling those long-ago minutes inside the van. A few feet outside of her space hung a digital countdown clock: 4 days, 8 hours until kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI.

Four days, 8 hours, and counting ...

"It's probably more of my personality, why I didn't say anything inside that van," said Melangton, who is just the second female in 46 Super Bowls to run the host committee. "I just decided that actions speak louder than words, and if I do a good job, they may remember that they had that discussion and feel differently. But I had a debate within myself that entire ride; it felt like a hard decision at the time."

The world will judge Indianapolis based on the city's efficiency and hospitality during these next few days, but Melangton will judge the Super Bowl based on something entirely different. She, and other women in Indiana, believe the platform of the Super Bowl will lead to a world-changing breakthrough: a cure for breast cancer.

Melangton's best friend, Traci Runge, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. Upon learning her diagnosis, Runge immediately called the Komen for the Cure Tissue Bank (KTB) at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center. She'd donated a healthy sample of breast tissue in 2007 after watching the mother of a girl she coached battle the disease for three years. After receiving her own ominous news, Runge felt compelled to donate a cancerous sample before receiving any treatment that might taint the tissue's clinical value. (Runge is now healthy, a few months from completion of her reconstructive process.)

"As I was laying on the table, they asked me if I had any idea of the impact of what I was doing that day," Runge said. "That's when they shared with me that I was the first person in the world, ever, to donate a healthy and then cancerous tissue."

Runge couldn't believe it. When she shared the news with Melangton, her friend responded by saying, "We have to let the world know what we have here. It can make a difference around the world, not just in Indiana ... There are still people that don't know about this place."

2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee

Allison Melangton, left, was inspired by her best friend, Traci Runge, right, who recently finished cancer treatments.

Many people don't know that KTB is the only repository in the world for normal breast tissue. And it's not just everyday people who don't know, but researchers around the world -- people who could analyze this tissue and affect change.

Melangton immediately brought KTB into the Super Bowl's powerful orbit. They called the project "Super Cure" and included it with the NFL's Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Because of the Super Bowl platform, approximately $1.5 million has been raised for KTB. And because of a Super Bowl-related push last weekend, nearly 700 women (46 percent of whom were minorities usually underrepresented in KTB's samples) donated tissue, which provided the center more samples than it collects in a year.

"That's probably the single biggest degree of participation in a clinical trial by a minority population in this country," said Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo, co-director of the KTB, who said she was initially surprised to have the backing of the Super Bowl Host Committee, but now believes she has "powerful female ambassadors" going forward.

Three other women have provided before-and-after samples since Runge did in 2010; and more are expected. Storniolo explained the breakthrough provided by Runge's dual samples -- and future ones like it.

"Between samples from two different people, there are differences -- like height and hair color -- that are just bystanders. There's noise that needs to be subtracted out," she said. "When you have one person's before and after, the noise cancels out and you're left with the true differences: What makes those two samples different? What happened to make normal go abnormal?"

"I think the key to unlocking breast cancer and a cure is going to happen because of this," Melangton said. "So, in 10 years ... we'll say, 'We started that here.'"

Storniolo did not hesitate in agreeing with Melangton.

"I absolutely share that belief," she said. "And what's really cool is how the Super Bowl impacts us. People are going to be able to say, 'It was the women of Indy who helped end breast cancer.' They own it."

Melangton's résumé is more epic novel than haiku: she's directed 100 national and international competitions for USA Gymnastics, directed Olympic trials, World Championships, Big Ten tournaments and the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championships. She's also worked seven Olympics, including the past four, and won four Emmys for her work with NBC.

Her efforts were so impressive in securing Indianapolis' Super Bowl bid that, two days before she was scheduled to leave for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the local coordinators called and said, "We don't want to have a selection process; we just want to know if you'll do it."

The behind-the-scenes nature of her role, which she's held for four years, includes a combination of logistics, marketing and operations. She coordinates the leadership board (five of the eight board members are women) to make sure everyone's experience in the city -- fans, media and the NFL -- is hiccup-free.

As Indianapolis becomes flooded with tourists and football fans, Melangton and her staff are now fiddling with what she calls "pinch points" within the city (any place where pedestrian traffic flow becomes congested). They're also tweaking a number of issues, including the designated areas for network cameras. The heavy lifting has already been done; now it's time for observation and maintenance.

Melangton said she believes it's been a "brewing topic" that five of the host committee's eight members are women. At the first press conference, the media noticed how many women held key positions within the committee. One of the takeaways of that first session seemed to be, "Oh my gosh, there's a lot of women sitting up there."

"I think that a lot of people have looked at former Super Bowl host committees and they have been male-dominated, and I think we're the first female-dominated committee," she said. "But we just hired the best people for the jobs and didn't really consider gender, but it's still interesting the attention that's being paid to that."

Melangton might have stayed quiet during that van ride a few years ago, but her work with this Super Bowl seems to be anything but.

Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW. You can follow her on Twitter @katefagan3.

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