Last summer, Hannah Dukeman attended a Morgan Wallen concert at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Accompanied by her sister, the two arrived at their seats and started talking to an older couple that was seated next to them.
“Like a mom and dad,” Dukeman said. “They were around our parents’ age.”
When the topic of education came up, Dukeman mentioned she was attending Ball State, where she is a senior softball player.
Dukeman was asked about her future, and she told her new acquaintances she wanted to be a pediatric oncologist. Instantly, the husband started to cry.
“[I was like] ‘Okay, did I do something wrong?’” Dukeman said.
He then apologized and explained.
“[He told me] my kid is six years old and has brain cancer,” Dukeman said. “He has been fighting it for four years.”
The man went on to thank her by giving her a hug and saying ‘I love you’ due to what she represents with her career choice. But Dukeman isn’t waiting for her future to help.
Alongside her teammate, senior Emma Eubank, the two Cardinals have been using their name, image and likeness (NIL) to raise funds and awareness for cancer.
Now the two are being recognized for their work, being named the Money Talks Advocates of the Year. The non-profit magazine is a publication where people can learn about financial topics and how to improve their networking.
Both Dukeman and Eubank have a personal history with the disease, sparking their inspiration. Dukeman has dealt with relatives getting cancer at multiple points in her life, and she also had a friend who lost her mom to breast cancer.
Then the disease came for her close family. Her grandpa was diagnosed with stage four terminal bone cancer in 2018.
“He was super present in our lives,” Dukeman said. “[He was] our biggest supporter. He lived 20 minutes from our house, so we saw him all the time.”
After fighting for two years, he lost his battle. But the losses kept piling on.
“A month after that, my other grandpa passed away,” Dukeman said.
This time, it was due to pancreatic cancer.
Eubank’s introduction to the disease was similar. Only this time, it was to someone she never had the chance to meet.
“[My uncle Timmy] got diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer, and he died at the age of 14,” Eubank said. “So I've kind of seen my family and there's just a missing part in it. My grandparents still struggle with his death, as well as my mom and her sisters.”
The impact didn’t stop there. The person who introduced her to the subject, her high school medical interventions teacher Elisa Peters, passed away from cervical cancer in the summer of 2021.
“There's just so many people in my life getting diagnosed or passing away from cancer,” Eubank said. “So I was like, ‘There's got to be something I can do about it.’”
Dukeman and Eubank have been roommates since their freshman year of college. Since they both wanted to spread awareness about cancer, they looked for an opportunity.
All of a sudden, NIL was starting to gain traction in the world of college athletics.
“I don't think anybody really knew the first thing about how to do it,” Dukeman said. “There's a lot of rules that go into it and it's hard to navigate.”
With so many questions, the pair decided to find someone who could help them use this to their advantage.
Enter Greg Glynn, who is the founder and CEO of Pliable, a marketing, public relations and broadcasting company. After NIL started making waves, he believed that he could use the opportunity to help improve student-athletes with their future careers.
“When I found out [Hannah and Emma] wanted to cure cancer, I was like, ‘You guys are incredible,’” Glynn said. “That's about as high on the list as you can get.”
When Dukeman and Eubank first met Glynn, he asked what they had in mind. After thinking of the National Football League's [NFL] ‘My Cause, My Cleats’, that’s when the idea of customizing cleats became more than just a thought..
“I thought that was an amazing opportunity for athletes to showcase who they are as a person,” Glynn said. “A lot of times people forget that these are people, they're not just athletes.”
According to Glynn, no one had used NIL to do something like this. However, just as the thought of customizing cleats became a reality, there were a lot of hoops to jump through.
“In order for us to even order them, we had to go by our compliance officer,” Dukeman said. “They had to approve it and then the MAC (Mid-American Conference) had to approve it. After the MAC approved it, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) had to approve it.”
After three months of clearing many hurdles, the cleats were ready. The two first wore them in the Cardinals game against Miami (OH) April 26 last season.
For the 2024 season, Dukeman and Eubank are already designing their next cleats.
The Goal and the Recognition
One of the most inspiring aspects of Dukeman and Eubank’s goal was pediatric cancer.
“They haven't lived a full life yet,” Eubank said. “Their life has been stolen from them when they're like four years old, even a year old. It’s hard to see someone pass away at that age when I've lived 21 years now.”
For a while, the two have wanted to take a trip to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. Eubank is currently working on her Ph.D. and would like to complete it at the hospital.
After trying to find other ways to help, both Dukeman and Eubank will be taking part in St. Jude’s Walk/Run event in Indianapolis Sept. 30. For this event, people can donate to their team. Their goal is to raise $10,000.
For the event, the pair reached out to local icons like David Letterman and Peyton Manning. Anyone that came to their mind received an email.
The two will also speak about their experiences and their passion.
“Everything matters,” Dukeman said. “My sister said ‘Even something like a smile to these families and the kids that are struggling can help.’”
The award from Money Talks will publicize their objective at a new level as they will be interviewed and be on the cover for two different editions of the magazine.
“What Emma and Hannah are doing is amazing,” Money Talks founder and president Crystal Evans said. “One as athletes, two as students, and three as activists. I think it's heroic and selfless.”
While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Evans met Glynn and learned about Dukeman and Eubank. Evans has had multiple family members who have had cancer, so she understood what the pair were trying to do.
Dukeman and Eubank are the first two college students to win the award. But while the pair appreciate the support that they have recently received, they didn’t start sharing the story until recently.
“Our goal is to share our story and get it out there and raise awareness for the cause that we're so passionate for,” Dukeman said.
In fact, they didn’t tell their teammates until they debuted the aforementioned cleats.
“We didn't tell [the team] about this until we just walked into the [locker room] one day with our cleats and everyone was like, ‘What the heck,’” Eubank said. “We told them the story and the team is proud of us, which is good to hear because with us being so passionate about it and with us loving our teammates so much, we love that we have their support and their families' support too.”
Since their freshman year, Dukeman and Eubank knew they wanted to continue their work with cancer after their time at Ball State.
“I was on the phone with my grandma telling her how cool it'd be if in the future we were buddies in the hospital,” Dukeman said. “She'd [be] my researcher and I'd [be] the doctor.”
Whatever happens in their future careers, Dukeman will continue to honor what her grandpa told her when he was fighting for his life. He reminded her to enjoy life and would downplay his health.
“He told us the first day we found out [about his diagnosis] to always ‘remember to smile,” Dukeman said.