TAMPA — Jon Cooper stands next to the gray post, hidden from the sight of most who gaze toward the platform in the front of the Lexus Lounge, waiting for his cue.
The emcee then announces his name and hands Cooper the microphone. The couple hundred people in attendance for the kickoff dinner for Coop's Catch for Kids meet his entrance with applause.
"Wow," Cooper says. "I can't believe this is Year 3."
He also had trouble believing how many faces looked back at him, there at Amalie Arena on Monday to raise money for the fight against pediatric cancer.
Longtime ESPN commentator Dick Vitale sat in a leather chair two feet away. Rays manager Kevin Cash stood in the middle of the crowd. Next to Cash, many Lightning players watched their coach speak. They all made up what Cooper and Vitale described as the event's largest crowd to date.
"The humbling part of this whole experience is the people who come and show their support," Cooper said. "You're passionate about a cause but to watch all the people come and support you and your passion for that cause as well, it's so rewarding."
It's not by accident. Ask anyone involved in putting together the two-day, which included fishing on Tuesday, and they will tell you attendance grows each year because of Cooper's passion in doing everything he can to fight pediatric cancer throughout the year.
"We're seeing him blossom into a real Tampa Bay icon," said Charley Belcher, Monday's emcee and a Fox 13 reporter whose daughter beat leukemia.
Said Vitale, "You know he can coach, but he is a quality human being. He cares about giving back."
That became clear when Vitale and Cooper met a few years ago at one of Vitale's annual galas. Cooper called Vitale shortly after. He wanted to do something like that and asked if Vitale could speak at it.
Vitale said yes and has said yes each year.
"I come here because I know what he's doing," Vitale said. "He's helping kids. To me, there's nothing greater in life than if you can bring a smile to someone's face."
Cooper has certainly brought a smile to Weston Hermann's face on multiple occasions. Vitale introduced Cooper to Hermann, a 12-year-old Parrish boy whose brain cancer is now in remission, after learning how much he loved hockey.
Vitale called Cooper and asked if he could get a Lightning shirt with Hermann's name on it.
"Better than that, why don't we get the kid to a Lightning game and I will let him skate with the team," Cooper responded.
Not long after, Hermann took part in a Lightning morning skate. He was also the star of last year's Coop's Catch. Now closing in on a year in remission, Hermann was a featured guest again this year.
Cooper's reasoning for giving kids fighting cancer experiences they won't forget is simple.
"I'm 51 years old, so I can look back and have 51 years of experiences to conjure up memories and all of the fun I have had," Cooper said. "I sit there and think about the young child who is 6 or 8 years old and may not be given that opportunity."
Not a bad day for our 3rd annual #CoopsCatchForKids! Thank you to our @tblightning players, all of our fishing crews, and the tournament’s partner Heritage Insurance for continuing to help support the fight against pediatric cancer. pic.twitter.com/TgFOtbJUUc— Lightning Foundation (@LightningFDN) October 9, 2018
"We have a chance to reach out and affect people's lives and change some things," Ryan Callahan said. "He wants us to do that, and I think he leads by example with it."
Cooper leads by example as he's inspired by Tony Colton, who died from cancer at the age of 17 in 2017. Colton did everything from serving as a spokesperson for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation to lobbying on Capitol Hill during his seven-year battle, and got Cooper's attention at the 2015 Sneaker Soiree in Tampa.
Colton soon became the inspiration for Coop's Catch.
He continues to inspire Cooper today as the coach grows support and funds for the fight against pediatric cancer. Cooper's legacy in Tampa might be growing because of these efforts, but that's not his goal. All he is trying to do is fulfill a promise he made to Colton in his hospital room during his final days.
"I will do everything in my power," Cooper told him, "to continue the fight."
Contact Nick Kelly at [email protected] Follow @_NickKelly