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Vitale’s Christmas party embraces under-privileged

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- It was overwhelming.

Sitting in one of the most palatial homes in Manatee or Sarasota counties, Habeem Gilot, 14, opened the gift wrapping to reveal a Wii home video console.

His jaw dropped in disbelief.

Brittney Martinelli opened a package to find a high definition TV set. Even before she had removed all the paper, she heard her named called to go forward and receive another gift.

About a dozen disadvantaged children from the Sarasota Boys and Girls Club found themselves sitting before the Christmas tree of ESPN sportscaster Dick Vitale, and his wife Lorraine on Wednesday for the Vitale’s annual Christmas party.

Even more overwhelming than all those gifts and one of the jolliest Santa Clauses anywhere, was Vitale himself, who gave the children one of his trademark inspirational talks.

“If you have passion and you’re good to people, a lot of beautiful things can happen,” Vitale said. “Your reputation and your values are more important than the car you drive or the house you live in.”

Moreover, having lots of money alone won’t make anyone happy,” Vitale said, recalling how he lost an eye as a child, ending a promising career as an athlete, and how being fired from a coaching job led him to a three-decade career with ESPN.

The children couldn’t look away as Vitale literally sat them down and gave them his best fatherly advice.

“Go to college. It’s an excuse when people say, “I don’t have the money,’” Vitale said. “There is always a way.”

But he also acknowledged that life is tough, full of ups and downs. While the Boys and Clubs Girls kids have had it tough, there is always someone who has had it even rougher, including children who died of disease or in an accident, he said.

As an example of someone who dreamed big and succeeded, Vitale asked the children and adults to put aside politics for a moment and consider the example of Barack Obama.

“He rose to be president of the United States of America. Whatever you want to be, you can be. Don’t believe you can’t,” he said.

Vitale introduced his son-in-law Thomas Krug, a former Notre Dame quarterback and prosecutor who is preparing to take his seat as circuit court judge in Sarasota.

Krug encouraged the children to trust those most who love them -- their fathers and mothers -- and take their advice rather than that of someone who could lead them down the wrong path.

“Be sure to say thank you and I love you to your parents and teachers,” Krug said.

Shuana Naudascher, one of the children at the Vitale party, said she was surprised, no, make that beyond surprised to be in Vitale’s home.

Brittney Martinelli said she was already planning to attend college, and Vitale’s advice reinforces for her the path she has chosen.

Vitale said he hopes others who have been richly blessed will also share with others who haven’t been so fortunate.

He allowed that the Christmas party probably meant as much to him as the children, and that he was only sorry that his blue-collar parents weren’t alive to enjoy the annual event with him.