Four years ago, when Marv Levy, then the Buffalo Bills' coach, learned he had prostate cancer, his mind raced through tire standard checklist of the cancer sufferer—rage, denial, despair-before he remembered Len Dawson. Levy knew Dawson, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Chiefs and a prostate survivor, from Levy's coaching days in Kansas City. He telephoned Dawson, and they spoke at length about a cancer that will afflict one in five American men in their lifetimes. Ten days later Dawson called back to share some further thoughts. "The talks were tremendously helpful to me," says Levy, who had his prostate removed in October 1995. "I was fortunate enough to get through the surgery and, remembering how meaningful the support from people like Lenny and General [Norman] Schwarzkopf [also a prostate cancer survivor] had been, I wanted to do something positive."
Levy, who retired from coaching after the '97 season, has become a one-man support group, spending hours each week in his Bills office, phoning or writing letters to other men with prostate cancer. There is nothing formal about his work—"There's no Marv Levy Web site or anything," he says; "I can't even use a computer"—it is simply heartfelt. Prostate cancer and its treatment can affect sexual and urinary functions, so it's sometimes a difficult subject to broach. "Often I get a call from someone asking me to speak to his father, who is too embarrassed to call me himself?' says the 73-year-old Levy, who splits time between Buffalo and his hometown of Chicago. "I'm happy to make those calls."
"Marv was unbelievable with me," says Ian MacDonald, whose prostate cancer was diagnosed in September 1997. MacDonald, a sportswriter for The Gazette in Montreal, met Levy in the '70s when Levy coached the Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. "I called him up," says MacDonald. "I said, 'Listen, I don't want to bother you....' I mean, it was the middle of the season. He had enough bloody things to do. But we spoke once a week. If I didn't call him, he would call me."
Levy's doctors say he is healthy and shows no signs that the cancer has returned. He has a checkup every six months and continues to spread the word. He doesn't add anything startling to the national conversation about prostate cancer—men over 50 should have have annual screenings; early detection is critical—but sometimes it takes the right messenger to get the message across.