For most of his life, Desmond Cunningham has given his strength back to others.

The 29-year-old Moline man helps children find success in life, and he also enjoys his work with adults who have physical and mental disabilities. 

Now he faces a massive challenge of his own: Cunningham is dealing with a rare type of stage-four cancer.

The many friends Cunningham has made over his 12 years in the Quad-Cities have organized to help him. A benefit is planned for Saturday with the goal of providing both financial and emotional support.

Thousands of dollars in seed money has already been collected, and the benefit organizers hope for a whole lot more during the activities to be held in downtown Davenport.

"He deserves this," said Kelly Spitz, who is the lead organizer of the event. "He does so much for everyone he knows. If he knew a person in this situation, he'd do it for them, too. I'm trying to show him how much he means to so many people." 

Attended Augustana

A native of Maywood, Ill., a Chicago suburb, Cunningham moved to the Quad-Cities as a teenager to play football and run track at Augustana College in Rock Island. From the start, he dedicated himself to serving as a role model to underprivileged children. Today, he works as the after-school program manager at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Rock Island.

He is also a member of the Quad-City Wolfpack, a semi-pro football team and has played in its defensive backfield the past two seasons.

He also is employed full-time at New Choices Inc. in Bettendorf, working with adults who have intellectual disabilities.

"Desmond has dedicated his life in helping others, and now it's time for us to return the love," said Casey Milem of Rock Island, a supporter of the benefit.

Illness struck last year

It was in the middle of the 2013 Wolfpack season when Cunningham first felt ill.

"I had no appetite and I couldn't keep anything down," he said. He lost 20 pounds in just two weeks.

He went to University Hospitals in Iowa City, but the tests he underwent there came back negative. Meanwhile, he was still sick.

"I went from 205 pounds to a buck 70 (170 pounds) in a month," he said.

Cunningham was then referred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he got the diagnosis: bile duct cancer. It afflicts 2,000 to 3,000 Americans every year, but two-thirds of them are more than 70 years old, according to the American Cancer Society.

He started chemotherapy treatments in October 2013 and they ended in March. The whole time he was being treated, he continued working out with a goal of resuming his football activity, he said. That decision did not please his mother, he added.

"We have not given up his spot," says Jerry Miller, of Orion, Ill., the team president, who added that the WolfPack is proud to include Cunningham on the roster.

"He is such a tremendous person," Miller said. 

Cunningham has stopped undergoing the chemotherapy, citing the physical and mental toll it has taken on him. But he still has stents in his liver that have to be replaced every three months at the hospital in Iowa City.

Staying positive

Since he got his diagnosis, Cunningham has tried hard to stay positive. "It's a hard thing to take on," he acknowledges. "I look at it every day. I could choose to lay down or to stand up. 

"I rely on the support of friends and family and use football to keep myself in a positive state. Then I go from there," he says.

Cunningham loves and appreciates his friends.

"I have the best group of friends a person could ask for," he said. When his illness first surfaced, he kept quiet about it. But now his WolfPack teammates have rallied around him. "They have my back," he said.

Spitz met Cunningham when they both worked at the Carriage Haus nightclub in Davenport and says this is the first benefit she has organized.

"I've attended benefits and donated to benefits, but I've never actually organized one. At times this has been overwhelming," she says. "I just sit down and cry. Then, though, I think of all the good that will come from it for Des.

"Everyone wants to help him." 

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