TAMPA — Whenever Tampa fire Capt. Joe Billek saw people standing on the side of the road, he'd ask the fire truck driver to pull over. He wanted to make sure they were okay.
When Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts was shot in the line of duty, Billek led a fundraiser for Roberts' widow.
But now Billek needs help. He's fighting metastasized melanoma, for which there is no cure.
A few weeks ago while in the hospital, Billek, 49, quietly mentioned to his friend, firefighter Michael Pease, that he was concerned about finances. Pease and firefighter Tim Robinson immediately got to work and organized a golf tournament to raise money.
The Joe Billek Open quickly sold out all 144 spots.
Billek, a Tampa firefighter for 27 years, found out he had melanoma when doctors removed a mole on his back in May 2009. A scan in March showed it had metastasized to his lung. He started chemotherapy.
His co-workers rallied around him. Firefighters shaved their heads when Billek started to lose his hair. They cooked for his family. Some are picking up his shifts so he can still get a paycheck.
His sister is flying from Salt Lake City for the golf tournament. A couple he met on an Alaskan cruise a few years ago is a tournament sponsor. Friends he hasn't spoken to in decades have contacted him.
His fans call themselves Joey Junkies. They even have navy blue shirts that declare such.
"I'm blessed to have such a support system," Billek said.
He's not used to getting all this attention. For years, he helped others as a firefighter. But, now, he says it's what keeps him going, even as the chemotherapy saps his strength.
He doesn't know how much longer he has to live, but he plans to participate in whatever clinical trials are available to him.
"I've got my wife and my two boys, (ages) 26 and 24. They're pulling for me," he said. "I still have my dad, who's 89 years old … I can't give up."
He has two more years left with Tampa Fire Rescue before he retires, and he's not sure if he's going to be able to go back. But he wants one more day.
Billek's son, Michael Billek, 26, is scheduled to be hired by Tampa Fire Rescue in July. Joe Billek's goal is to work at least one shift with his son.
"So I'm going to keep fighting to the end," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.