Sports

Dick Vitale is more awesome than ever, baby!

ESPN icon returned to Eastern Iowa to raise money for pediatric cancer research

Dick Vitale and former North Carolina State basketball star Dereck Whittenburg Friday at Riverside Casino & Golf Resort, where they were speakers at the 380 Companies, Billlion Auto, Dick Vitale Golf and Gala. (Mike Hlas/The Gazette)
Dick Vitale and former North Carolina State basketball star Dereck Whittenburg Friday at Riverside Casino & Golf Resort, where they were speakers at the 380 Companies, Billlion Auto, Dick Vitale Golf and Gala. (Mike Hlas/The Gazette)

RIVERSIDE — Dick Vitale turned 80 this month.

“The candles cost more than the cake,” he quipped Friday at Riverside Casino & Golf Resort. “I feel like I’m 20 and I act like I’m 12.”

Here’s hoping there are many more cakes and thousands more candles ahead. The ever-enthusiastic, fast-talking, fun-loving ESPN college basketball commentator is significantly more than that, and his voice to raise money for pediatric cancer research is sorely needed.

“I’m obsessed with this,” Vitale said as he posed for photos during the golf portion of the eighth-annual 380 Companies, Billion Auto, Dick Vitale Golf and Gala. It was the seventh-straight year he’s been at the event.

“This is now the most important thing in my life, trying to raise dollars so kids can be cancer free,” he said. “I’m so dedicated and determined. There’s a lot of money in our nation, and we’ve got to move people. To my last breath, I’ll beg and plead for more dollars.”

It’s impossible to quantify the good Vitale and so many others he has enlisted to help have done when it comes to beating the drum to fund cancer research, but here are raw numbers:

Last month’s 14th-annual Dick Vitale Gala in Sarasota, Fla., raised $4.3 million alone, bringing the total from the events to $29.3 million.

Last week’s 380/Billion Auto event raised $150,000, bringing its total over the years to about $1.2 million.

All of which just makes Vitale hungrier for more.

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“It’s not enough,” he said. “There are so many beautiful kids out there who have cancer. Every day, children find out they have cancer and it’s life-changing. I talked to a father, and he says he can’t work. All he can do is think about his child who has cancer.

“I send things to CEOs of companies and I say 'join us, help us, help kids. You might save someone you love.'”

Vitale doesn’t have to do this, obviously. He can spend his springs and summers and autumns at his Florida home, relaxing and enjoying the fruits of his incredibly successful career. Many would. Many do.

But there he was Thursday afternoon visiting patients at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. There he was Thursday night at the 380/Billion gala at Riverside, strongly and successfully urging attendees to support his cause.

“I’ve had a beautiful, blessed life,” Vitale said. “I’ve been married for 48 years.”

With wife Lorraine standing near him Friday, Vitale bragged on his daughters and their families. He pulled out his cellphone and proudly showed a photo displaying the grades a granddaughter who’s a high school junior got in her most recent semester. He talked about how his parents steered him the right way.

“My dad worked in a factory, pressing coats,” Vitale said. “I’ve been stealing money.

“I lost an eye when I was a kid. My mother said ‘Richie — it was always Richie, not Dick — you can still do anything you want. And a few weeks ago I got the highest honor, an Emmy Award for lifetime achievement.

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“I never felt I deserved it. You look at the people who have gotten it, Howard Cosell, Vin Scully, John Madden, Keith Jackson ...”

But of course, Vitale does deserve it. As much as anyone, he helped ESPN vault from a cable television network with a niche in 1979 to its current status as a global multimedia presence. How? By being himself, bringing passion and fun and his much-repeated terminology to telecasts and embracing the public wherever he went.

ESPN announced this week that it had extended Vitale’s contract through the 2021-2022 college basketball season.

“What the last three presidents at ESPN have told me is, in essence I have a lifetime contract,” Vitale said. “As long as I feel I can work, I have a job. ESPN’s treated me like royalty.

“My mother said ‘Richie, if you’re good to people then people will be good to you.’ I’m in 14 Halls of Fame because people have been so good to me. It’s one reason why I want to give back."

Dick Vitale is 80, happy and appreciative about his own life, but worried about the lives of others. He can’t start coasting now. Kids have cancer. Kids keep getting cancer.

“We’ve got to end this,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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