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Commentary | Another Dick Vitale Gala brings hope thanks to two kids named Lauren Hill and Dillon Simmons

Lauren Hill and Dillon Simmons were two kids who loved sports and wanted to enjoy life.

Their time was cut short.

Cancer has a way of doing that, but what these two youngsters did gives a sense of immortality to their lives.

They will be honored at the 10th annual Dick Vitale Gala on May 15th at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. The gala has raised more than $12 million for pediatric cancer research since its inception nine years ago.

This year's grants will include $250,000 in memory of Hill and $200,000 in memory of Simmons.

They inspired those who knew their stories, especially other youths who were fighting a similar battle. They showed us most of our daily complaints are trivial.

Hill and Simmons didn't get enough time to live out their dreams, but they gave hope to thousands who are continually caught up in the war against cancer.

Hill was just a high school kid who wanted to play college basketball. She signed a scholarship to play for Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, but before she could thoroughly enjoy that moment, she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

She took a path that many of us would find difficult to navigate, fighting her disease while relentlessly working to raise money for pediatric cancer research so others could beat the enemy that was closing in on her.

Hill captured the nation when she scored the first and last baskets in her team's season opening victory. She played in four more games raising awareness of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare form of pediatric brain cancer.

Hill passed away at the age of 19 last month. She was awarded the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award given out by the United States Basketball Writers Association and was honored during the past Jimmy V Women's Basketball Classic.

Mount St. Joseph women's basketball coach Dan Benjamin said Lauren made a huge impact on his life and the lives of his players in the short time they knew her.

"She was one kind of remarkable woman, very unselfish and always wanting to give to her teammates and the younger kids who had the disease, but couldn't speak out," Benjamin said.

"She was a great voice for DIPG. She was an unselfish caring and giving. She was witty and had a great sense of humor. And she could play basketball. She said if this was going to happen (her life ending) she wanted to do it the right way and help others."

Hill and Simmons lived those famous words Jimmy Valvano bestowed upon us when he was fighting cancer 22 years ago: "Don't give up. Don't ever give up."

His words gave birth to the Jimmy V Foundation, which raises money for cancer research and will be in our backyard again Friday.

Numerous celebrities from the sports world will be in attendance, but as we learn every year, the kids who are on the front lines of this battle are the superstars.

"Lauren Hill inspired so many and amazed me by relentlessly raising money for research while courageously battling brain cancer," said ESPN college basketball guru Dick Vitale. "That, my friend, is a very special young lady. Lauren will never, ever be forgotten."

Simmons was passionate about hockey and played for the Florida Eels in Lee County. In September 2012 after a collision on the ice, medical tests revealed he had a golf ball-sized tumor in his brain.

There were three surgeries and more than 30 chemo treatments. He recovered enough to play hockey again and attended the 2013 Vitale Gala. He passed away three weeks before the 2014 gala at the age of 15.

He was named the most positive student at this middle school after his first surgery, and his fighting spirit was an inspiration to all who knew about his plight.

"Young Dillon Simmons, who we had the good fortune to have at our eighth annual gala, so impressed us with his determination to fight until he unfortunately lost his life to brain cancer, too," Vitale said. "As we give grants in both Lauren's and Dillon's name, we will make certain that others will benefit from research."

This year's gala will honor Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Lovie Smith, Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim and Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher.

People can make donations to the Dick Vitale Gala (c/o The V Foundation 106 Towerview, Cary, N.C., 27513) or by calling 1-800-4JIMMYV.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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