Dick Vitale and Jake Taraska have joined forces in fight against cancer

BRADENTON -- "Don't give up. Don't ever give up," are words familiar to so many people with the Dick Vitale Gala.

They were spoken by former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano before he succumbed to cancer in 1993.

Vitale and his legion of cancer fighters have taken those words to heart in the fight against the dreaded disease that does not discriminate.

The gala will celebrate its 11th year Friday night, and those words helped create a special bond between Dick Vitale and Jake Taraska.

Taraska is a baseball player for Inspiration Academy. When he was a toddler, doctors told his parents their son probably wouldn't be able to walk or speak.

Taraska was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops in nerve tissue and affects the brain and nervous system.

It affected his speech, and he still can't ride a bike because he cannot maintain his balance. He can hit a baseball traveling 90 mph, however, and cover a lot of ground in the outfield.

Now he's mulling several scholarship offers to play baseball.

"He is an inspiration for the other guys on the team, especially when they get upset about striking out. The Lord puts storms in your life and Jake has done a great job

with that," Inspiration Academy baseball coach Chuck Sandberg said.

Taraska loves baseball, but his passion is helping youngsters not as fortunate as him who are still in the midst of a battle with cancer.

Vitale is among Taraska's most fervent admirers.

The gala, Dick and Lorraine Vitale's premier fundraising event, annually raises money for the V Foundation in honor of Valvano. Proceeds go to fund pediatric cancer research.

"What amazes me is how these kids and their families can't do enough and want to extend their hands to help others so they don't have to feel the pain that they felt," Vitale said. "This is not the flu. These people felt the ultimate worst pain a parent can feel in losing a child and yet they can't do enough to help others."

Taraska is a glowing example of the kind of people in the fight against cancer. The now-18 year old raised $10,000 last year for pediatric cancer research and gave it to the Vitale Gala.

He wanted to do more and started the Jake Taraska Foundation in January. Since then, he has raised close to $20,000 and gave $4,000 to the Gala.

"I want to target on children instead of trying to give money to doctors. I am not against research, but I want to impact the individual families," Taraska said. "I give money directly to the families through gift cards and things like that, and providing money to give them an opportunity to go on vacation and provide transportation for the families that need it."

Taraska's motor skills have come a long way. At the age of 3, he couldn't pick up a Cheerio or a pen and put it back down. Now he gallops in the outfield, though he sometimes still stutters from a speech impediment.

"Everyday I get better, but I realized these kids need help, that there are not enough people standing up for them," Taraska said. "There needs to be more done to help them. They should be having fun and I want to be an inspiration to them."

Vitale and Taraska echo the same chant: Only 4 percent of every dollar raised for cancer goes to pediatric cancer research.

"That is a crime. It's criminal," Vitale said. "Little kids shouldn't have to suffer. If oncologists had more research dollars, they could do wonders. Too many kids who were at my Gala have died. Look at these beautiful kids. Maybe if there was more research grants these kids would still be living."

Vitale started the Gala in his house. It was too small to hold the huge gathering it attracted so he moved it to the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota the next year where it has stayed.

The event has raised $15.2 million so far with a high of $2.3 million last year. His goal is $2.5 million this year.

"We raise money throughout the year, but the brunt of it comes at the banquet and those figures are net after our expenses," Vitale said.

Vitale and his wife, Lorraine, have been to many funerals to pay honor to the children and provide comfort to their families and have made hundreds of visits to encourage children suffering from cancer.

Some cases hit close to home for Vitale, a Lakewood Ranch resident. Adrian Littlejohn, Payton Wright and Eddie Livingston all lived in Manatee County. Vitale attended all three funerals.

"They all inspire me. I look at those pictures and remember how they were so courageous in their battles against cancer and we will never let them be forgotten," Vitale said.

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