Each year, when Dick Vitale’s 12 months of fundraising for The V Foundation culminated with the annual Dick Vitale Gala in Sarasota, he would call upon one of his closest friends to emcee the event. He had known John Saunders for 30 years as coworkers at ESPN, active members of The V Foundation and friends away from their professional life. Ten of the 11 Vitale Galas were hosted by Saunders.
Saunders’ death on Aug. 10 was a shock to Vitale, ESPN and the entire sports world. He had battled diabetes and an enlarged heart, but he didn’t feel particularly ill until his final days.
“I can’t believe this stunning and horrible news,” Vitale said in ESPN’s obituary to Saunders the day after the 61-year-old’s death. “He will forever be in our thoughts.”
It took all of two weeks for Vitale to find a tangible way to remember his dear friend. On Aug. 25, Vitale and The V Foundation announced the establishment of the John Saunders Grant for Pediatric Cancer Research, which Vitale plans to present at his gala in May. Vitale is hoping to raise $250,000 for the grant, which will be just a fraction of the $3 million he aims to raise in total for The V Foundation. After a summer dedicated to general fundraising for the foundation, Vitale is shifting his focus to the John Saunders Grant for the coming weeks with a handful of sizable donations into the grant expected during the next month. Donations are also accepted at dickvitaleonline.com.
Vitale and Saunders’ relationship bloomed into more than simply being colleagues and friends in 1993, when both served as founding members on The V Foundation’s board of directors. Vitale and Saunders were both close with Jim Valvano, the national championship-winning college basketball coach who died of bone cancer and is now honored by The V Foundation, so battling cancer was a mutual passion.
Vitale’s particular mission has always been raising money to help children with cancer, and Saunders’ appearances as Vitale’s gala every year made him latch on to the same cause.
“John was unbelievable with kids,” Vitale said Monday. “For years he’s dedicated himself to The V Foundation.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Vitale had already raised $68,700 for the grant and another $70,000 should be ready to be deposited by the end of the weekend. Vitale is hosting the Dick Vitale Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament from Friday through Sunday at Lakewood Ranch Athletic Club. With the help of his friend Larry Wade, Vitale has raised a record $90,000 through advertising banners at the event, which should come out to more than $70,000 for donations after taking out expenses for the tournament.
Vitale also expects another sizable donation to come next month, but he could not elaborate with specifics.
The upcoming tennis tournament will bring an end to his busiest fundraising stretch of the year before college basketball season gets underway this month. He’s made three stops this summer as far north as New Jersey and west as California to raise significant chunks toward his $3 million goal.
Later this week, Vitale will be presented with a $60,000 check at Thursday’s Lightning game for money raised during a gala and fishing tournament hosted by Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper. Earlier this summer, he traveled to East Rutherford, N.J., where he used to coach high school basketball, to be honored as the area’s Man of the Year and receive a $10,000 check.
“It’s not easy,” Vitale said. “It’s 24/7 trying to get the numbers up.”
His biggest chunk came during a September trip to San Francisco to visit Buster Posey and the Giants. Posey’s agent, Jeff Berry, attended Vitale’s gala and put Posey in touch with Vitale. Posey and his wife, Kristen, became close with a 4-year-old cancer patient and decided to latch onto Vitale’s cause.
In one day — Vitale attended a game and then spoke at a gala at AT&T Park — Vitale raised another $500,000 toward his goal, which will then be allocated to the hospitals and research centers of the Poseys’ choice.
And Cannon Wiggins, the 4-year-old Vitale met and learned battled through 108 straight hours of chemotherapy, will be in Sarasota next year — a special guest at the Vitale Gala.
“I’ve had such a blessed life,” Vitale said. “People have been so good to me. I have five healthy grandkids. The pain from these people, the stories I hear, it breaks your heart. They’re not worried about winning games. They’re worried — is my child going to be able to walk out of there with a smile on (their) face.”