Former UW-Madison Basketball Player Uses Sport to Help Find a Cure Against Cancer

Three years ago, Charlie Wills was hit hard by the news of a friend battling cancer that required surgery to remove a brain tumor. “It really made an impact on me and my buddies,” recalls the former Badger basketball star, who played for UW from 1998-2002. It touched them deeply enough to start their own event to help fund research for brain tumors. The annual golf event Wills and his friends still run caught the attention of the American Cancer Society, who approached him to join the board for Coaches vs. Cancer.

Wills understands what it means to do your part and help others. He believes that just because he doesn’t have what he calls “the brainpower to even understand what the doctors are doing,” his role in helping to find a cure is to raise awareness and encourage people to give.

For the past five years, Wills has been involved with the Suits and Sneakers program for Coaches vs. Cancer. He currently sits on the Coaches vs. Cancer Board of Ambassadors, as well as chairs the Suits and Sneakers Committee. This will be his first year being actively involved in volunteering for the event. During Suits and Sneakers, local basketball coaches dedicate the night’s game to Coaches vs. Cancer. While generally in suits, the coaches also wear sneakers to show their support, hoping it will prompt fans to ask questions. The event includes half-time recognition, T-shirts for sale and other fundraising opportunities.

UW men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan says the event started as a way for coaches to help raise awareness about a community cause, and finding a cure for cancer was a unanimous decision. Ryan also recognizes the responsibility student-athletes at UW feel to give back to their community, and is proud Wills has continued these efforts after college. “It doesn’t stop at an age, it’s ongoing,” says Ryan. “While on this journey, you have to show appreciation and use your talents, whether financially or time-wise, to bring focus to a cause.”

Wills, now a Sun Prairie resident and real estate agent with First Weber, has learned this lesson well, and uses his talents to achieve two specific goals within the organization. As a member of the executive committee, Wills’ main focus is coordinating the events. He spends much of his time there reaching out to companies and sponsors for donations as well as encouraging people to participate. As a board ambassador, Wills greatly enjoys his role of community outreach. He says the board members coordinate among their networks to get people involved. Personally, he spends a lot of time thinking about how to get everyone on the same page when it comes to cancer research. “As a longtime community member, it’s easy to reach out to others and remind them that cancer affects all our lives,” he says.

Wills believes that the event is more than worth the time he puts into it. He can see the results connect back to the people who get help in the surrounding communities. He sees multiple benefits from his efforts, from the wonder of seeing the help those suffering from cancer receive to seeing more new research and treatments possible thanks to the money raised. Wills saw both of these directly when that research saved his friend Jason’s life. “Something that simple is so cool,” Wills recalls. “To see Jason’s recovery and see him continue to grow and keep moving on.”

This year's Suits vs. Sneakers game is on Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 8pm at the Kohl Center. Help raise awareness and cheer for the Badgers as they take on the Hoosiers of Indiana University. Wills and Ryan will continue their work with the American Cancer Society during the Coaches vs Cancer Gala on Saturday, May 5, 2012 at the Kohl Center. Contact Rachel Larrivee at for ticket information or visit

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