Lakewood Ranch Herald

Dick Vitale Gala aims to beat pediatric cancer

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Dick Vitale is sitting at the Broken Egg restaurant. A man approaches and asks for an autograph.

Vitale gladly obliges and asks the gentleman if he would be kind enough to donate some money for the V Foundation, which raises money for pediatric cancer research in the name of the late N.C. State head coach Jim Valvano.

"Sorry, but I've been out of work for nearly two years," the man responds.

Vitale smiles and shakes his hand.

"You know how many times I hear that? People have no idea how hard it is to raise $1 million during these times," he says.

The famous ESPN college basketball analyst and Lakewood Ranch resident is in 10 halls of fame and coached college and professional basketball. He tries to draw on that experience to find new ways to raise money, which will give kids he

has emotionally adopted a fair chance in their battle against cancer.

His seventh annual Dick Vitale Gala to benefit the V Foundation is scheduled for May 18 at the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton. The goal is $1 million.

Vitale needs money for those kids. It's not much different than trailing by double digits in the last five minutes of a basketball game.

Vitale will have to draw on his ingenuity and creativity. So he sponsors a contest to win a brand new red 2012 Mercedes convertible. He will sell 1,500 tickets at $100 a pop for the car, which his foundation bought for $50,000. It's a risk, but nothing like what those families go though every day in their fight to keep their children alive.

He also has invited the Spinners, a popular R&B and pop group in the 1970s to perform on the night of the gala. It's another Dickie V idea. He pulls out all the stops.

The event is very emotional, and some of the stories told are tragic. Vitale hopes the entertainment will provide a lift at the end.

He doesn't need one, though. He works nonstop to save as many kids as he can, and seeing that million dollars flow into the V Foundation coffers will send his spirits soaring.

At the end of the gala, organizers will announce how much money has been raised, and if it exceeds $1 million, Vitale will feel as if he won the NCAA national championship.

"There is nothing worse than seeing people doing chemotherapy and radiation. And these are kids. They should be at the beach or playing baseball," Vitale says.

The first gala was held at Vitale's Lakewood Ranch home. He was told asking people to donate $1,000 and then asking celebrities, mainly from the sports world, to pay their own way to the event would not work.

But Vitale believed there were many athletes who would do it. He wasn't going to let them say no, anyway.

Vitale can't count how many hospital wards he and his wife, Lorraine, have visited to meet with those cancer-fighting kids. They read stories and try to make the kids laugh.

When the Vitales leave, they go to their car and cry.

"My mom (Mae) and father (John) were factory workers, but they had a doctorate of love," Vitale says. "My mom had two philosophies she shared with me: 'Never believe in can't" and 'Be good to people, because if you are good to people they will be good to you.'

"She was most proud of me for helping other people, and this is what I want to be remembered for doing. When we started this thing, people laughed at me. They told me I was out of my mind."

Just like a college coach who goes through a season of ups and downs, Vitale has experienced more than his share of highs and lows. He has seen families devastated when their child dies and has witnessed cries of joy when a child and his or her parents have been told the cancer has been eradicated or in remission.

It's no different for Vitale. Nothing can bring you to your knees quicker than a child losing his life to this dreaded disease.

Vitale has invited some area families whose children are on the front lines fighting cancer as his special guests. They are the real heroes, he says.

Among the invited guests are Lakewood Ranch residents Craig and Jeanine Livingston, whose 3-year-old son, Eddie, has stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that affects young children.

Eddie has undergone more than 60 combined chemotherapy and radiation treatments and has had three surgeries. He is still not cancer-free.

"It's a day-by-day thing," says Craig Livingston, who is the food service director at the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. "If you would meet him, you think he is fine. There is hope and there are treatments out there, and you need to do your research."

Then there is Kyle Peters, a 12-year-old whose mom, Jennifer, says he is winning his battle, though she knows the war never really ends.

Two years ago, he was playing baseball and complained of headaches. In August 2010, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. But the McIntosh Middle School sixth-grader has beaten back his enemy.

"He is in remission. The doctors don't like to use that word, but I say it," his mother says. "He finished his treatments and last June, we were told the cancer was gone. There are no more treatments, and we go for checkups every three months."

Many of these children are linked, thanks to Vitale and the V Foundation. One family's loss could mean a victory for another.

Jennifer Peters says a $500,000 grant from the V Foundation given to All Children's Hospital, in the name of Payton Wright, helped save her son.

Payton Wright died of brain cancer at age 5 on May 29, 2007. Along with help from the V Foundation and the Payton Wright Foundation founded by her parents, research into brain cancer has improved.

"It benefited Kyle because that money was used for research to find a cure for his treatment," Jennifer Peters says.

Another honored local guest will be Ashley Krueger, a 17-year-old student at the Sarasota Military Academy who is fighting Ewing's sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer.

About 6 feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes, she wanted to be model. Now she wants to stay alive.

But she never gets depressed, according to her mom, Cindi Krueger.

The gala will honor former college football coach and current ESPN college football analyst Lou Holtz, current Villanova head basketball coach Jay Wright and former Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams.

"They are humanitarians and have been so good to the V Foundation. They have done so much for this cause," Vitale says. "The list of people who are coming will make the Bradenton-Sarasota area the sports capital of the world for one night, and they all are paying their own way."

The guest list is enormous. Among those planning to attend are Kentucky national champion head basketball coach John Calipari and other college basketball coaching giants Rick Pinto, Billy Donovan, Larry Brown and Brad Stevens. Also attending will be new Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, former NFL and NBA standouts Vinny Testaverde, Kellen Winslow Sr. and Rick Fox and other sports figures, including Jon Gruden, Reggie Brown, Jimbo Fisher and Skip Holtz.

Vitale says the parents of the cancer-stricken children are praying for a miracle. He wants to make their wishes come true.

"This is so important to me. I want to give back," Vitale says. "I can't run, I can't jump and I can't shoot, but I am in 10 halls of fame because so many people have helped me. You don't get into a hall of fame by yourself. I am obsessed with this. These are kids, and no kid should have to go through what they are going through."

Anyone wishing to buy a raffle ticket for the Mercedes or make a donation may visit dickvitaleonline.com.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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