CEDAR RAPIDS — Talking about basketball is Dick Vitale’s profession. His passion is far more important.
Vitale calls his work to raise money for pediatric cancer research “my obsession.” He was in Cedar Rapids Monday at a V Foundation for Cancer Research fundraiser held by The 380 Companies of Cedar Rapids.
The V Foundation was formed by the late Jim Valvano and ESPN to find cures for cancer.
Craig Mettille, the president of 380 Companies, is a friend of Vitale’s. He urged Vitale to come to Cedar Rapids for the Golf and Gala benefit he sponsored at the Cedar Rapids Country Club.
Vitale said he’d make the trip from his home near Sarasota, Fla., if Mettille could promise the event would raise $100,000. The promise was made. Vitale greeted golfers during the day on Monday and gave a speech at the evening’s gala.
That money is going toward Vitale’s goal of raising at least $1 million annually for the V Foundation. Some of it is being put to use in our backyard. Dr. Miles Pufall of the University of Iowa got a two-year, $200,000 grant from the V Foundation to help with his research in childhood leukemia.
Vitale turns 73 Saturday. He has had health issues in his own life, from losing the vision in his left eye in kindergarten to throat and prostate surgery in 2007. You’d never know it by talking with him.
“Every guy should have the good health I have, knock on wood,” he said. “I feel great.
“But no kid should ever have to suffer.”
In 2006, Vitale held a celebrity-packed dinner in Sarasota to benefit the V Foundation. He hadn’t plan to make it an annual event, but then he met a neighbor girl named Payton Wright. She had brain cancer.
Vitale worked to raise money for Wright’s family so they could take time from their jobs to travel for their daughter’s treatments. Payton’s father, Patrick Wright, was with Vitale here Monday.
In 2007, the girl died at age 5.
“Watching a mother and father lay their child to rest,” Vitale said, “I went to them and said ‘Look, I can’t even imagine the pain you’re going through. But we’re not going to let her die in vain. I promise you one year from now we’ll have raised 1 million dollars in your child’s name and have other kids get helped because of her.’ And we did it.”
Vitale’s seventh such annual event in Sarasota, Fla., was the seventh-straight to raise over $1 million. This one netted $2.1 million after someone who chooses to remain anonymous added $500,000 to the effort.
“It means so much to me,” Vitale said. “When you get to know these families and get to know these young people, it just crushes you to see what they go through.
“We not only bring in cancer-survivors to our gala, but families like Patrick’s who have lost a child. We tell them we can’t save your child, but what we can do is use the hundreds of thousands of dollars we give in the name of their child to help other kids.”
You think Vitale gets excited during a Duke-North Carolina game? It’s nothing compared to the emotion in his voice when he discusses kids with cancer. He grabs your arm and looks you eye-to-eye as he talks.
“Young adults like Patrick here, he thought he was living the American dream,” Vitale said. “But now, he’ll tell you, you never, ever, ever get over losing a child.
“So we work this 24/7. The money raised here will go toward the million for next year.”
The guy is in his 70s and could be relaxing after a life you could only describe as ultra-successful. Instead, Vitale is on the road, posing for photos and giving speeches to raise money to help kids and families he’ll never meet.
To quote one of Vitale’s oft-used catchphrases: That’s awesome, baby!