CHAMPAIGN — In a non-COVID world, the streets of Melbourne, Australia would be full with runners traversing 18.8 kilometres through town and near the beach with music playing throughout.
In year's past, Illinois punter Blake Hayes, a native of Australia, has participated the run. It's a part of Connor's Run, an annual charity run that takes place in September to raise money for pediatric brain cancer. It's Australia's biggest event for the disease.
The run is in memory of Robert Connor Dawes who was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma, a tumor, at the age of 17 before he died when he was 18 years old. Hayes knew Dawes a bit, but first met him following the diagnosis when he was in a wheelchair. Hayes does know Dawes' sister, Hannah, who attended an all-girls school "100 yards" down the road from his all-boys school in Australia.
He's known the family for years and without the in-person run this year, Hayes is able to use his platform as one of college footballs prominent punting prospects to raise funds and awareness for pediatric cancer, which according to cancer.gov, "because of these survival improvements, in more recent years brain cancer has replaced leukemia as the leading cause of cancer death among children."
The motto for the run this year is "Connor's Run your way" meaning anywhere, anyhow. The run is typically 18.8 kilometres, symbolic of the distance Robert Connor Dawes ran from his home to the boatshed to prepare for the upcoming rowing season before his diagnosis. There's also a 9.6 kilometres run, which is for Dawes' birthday on June 9th.
“From there it really kick-started an inspirational story about how someone was very strong minded and came about to influence a lot of people," Hayes said.
This year, Hayes elected to bike 20 kilometres, about 12.5 miles, to save the legs a bit. He's raising funds here, with a goal of raising $400. Here's how you can participate.
“Whatever you want to do, if you want to run 18.8 kilometres or some people were doing 20 push-ups a day," Hayes said. "... Anything that people want to do, any form of exercise can be everyday, a month, once a week, once a month. It really doesn’t matter, just raising awareness and raising funds for the cause."
Hayes has spoken with Robert Connor Dawes' mother, Liz Dawes, a few times. The Hayes and Dawes family aren't best friends, but they know each other. Hayes said families don't have to be dinner guests every night to inspire someone makes a difference. He recognizes his platform to bring a wildly successful run in Australia, which raised more than $1 million in each of the last two years of the charity's seven-year existence, to the United States.
Typically, Hayes, who will likely eventually be a punter in the NFL, tries to stay under the radar. He's received messages asking for more information about the run after sending out a tweet on Tuesday.
Illini Nation we need your help! Pediatric Brain tumors are the #1 disease killer of young people and we want to help do something to change that. Follow the link below to learn more and donate to the RCD foundation! Thank you! @rcdfoundation https://t.co/BMPug2BFqQ— Blake Hayes (@HayesBla1) September 8, 2020
“I really just wanted to do something that hopefully inspires people and also helps a great cause," Hayes said. "(Illinois football head) Coach (Lovie) Smith often tells us that we do have that platform. I try to stay away from it because politics around using your platform. I thought this opportunity, there's nothing wrong with this at all.
"Just raising awareness for the Champaign community who I’m assuming have never heard about this and some people may not know what pediatric brain cancer is. It’s really special, especially when it comes from back home in Australia just to bring it over here and hopefully impact someone’s life or even raise a dollar just to help out in the research and development."
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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25