Alan Dell

Commentary: Vitale’s Army determined to win war against cancer

In delivering the final speech of his fundraising gala to fight cancer Friday night, Dick Vitale unleashed all the fury and passion within his 70-year-old body.

It was the perfect storm that seemed to have the power to move mountains, which his V Foundation has done in so many ways.

Anyone who didn’t fight a tear trickling down his or her face doesn’t understand how precious life can be. And anyone who didn’t feel a surge of adrenalin when Vitale told stories of cancer victims and survivors needs to reconnect to the human race.

Looked at from a historical perspective, Vitale’s war against cancer has become his personal Iwo Jima, the World War II battle that was immortalized by the photo of soldiers planting an American flag on the mountaintop of that island.

Look close enough and you can see Vitale, Jimmy Valvano, Mark Herzlich and 12-year-old superhero Jake Olson putting up their flag in their war against cancer. It is their way of saying they’ve got cancer on the run and are winning, though they’ve suffered their share of casualties.

This is the biggest battle that has ever been fought on American soil. Cancer has claimed more lives than both world wars combined — and every other war this country has fought.

Vitale has assembled an army that anyone can join. Age, gender, race and physical condition do not matter. Make a donation to the cause and you are in. If you are a cancer survivor, come out and tell your story.

Olson, who lost both eyes to cancer, says his goal is become the first blind golfer on the PGA Tour.

Before you gratuitously pat him on the shoulder and feel sympathy, think again. He is a special person who can make special things happen. But if not for money raised for cancer research, he probably wouldn’t have had the chance.

Olson brought the house down Friday night. Speaking without notes in front of a huge crowd at the Ritz-Carlton that included some of the biggest names in sports, the native of California was poised and confident.

An avid USC football fan, Olson asked any UCLA fans in the audience to raise their hands and then said how glad he was not to see any. Could Jay Leno use this kid?

This is how it is with Vitale’s Army. They come from every walk of life and prove heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

There are now 12 million cancer survivors walking the planet, thanks in part to the money raised by the V Foundation, named for Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach who died in 1993 from the disease.

Vitale has become a modern day Robin Hood. The best part is he doesn’t have to rob from the rich to give to cancer victims, who don’t have the means to wage a competitive battle.

He goes to those who have had their share of financial success, and most open their pockets. And why not? It’s an investment that might save their life someday or the life of a loved one.

Olson calls himself a cancer survivor and doesn’t lament what it has taken from him. That in itself tells so much about him.

“Cancer research helps over 12 million people like me become cancer survivors,” Olson told the audience. “You guys with your donations are giving kids like me all around the world new hope to go on in life and help me become the first blind golfer on the PGA Tour.”

Vitale’s Army is a brigade of common people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and provided inspiration to millions of others.

So while there were enough college basketball coaches at the gala to play at least three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, there was a bigger cause.

The coaches will get a chance to do it again when the next season tips off, but not all cancer victims will have that opportunity.

That’s what Vitale’s Army is trying to give them — a second chance.