Dick Vitale focuses his passion on raising money to fight cancer

Published May 14 2012
Updated May 15 2012

The familiar voice sounds different now. It is raw and emotional, and it seems to keep catching on something.

The shtick has been stripped away. There are no quick catch-phrases, no cartoon rises and falls. Dick Vitale still speaks with the speed of an auctioneer, and his words are still laced by his passion. But this time, you can hear his pain as he speaks.

Vitale is talking about cancer, again, and children, still, and fundraising, always. He is talking about hardships and heartache and precarious health. He is taking about Payton and Eddie and Kyle and Adrian and Taylor and the rest.

"This disease is just devastating,'' Vitale said. "It's horrible. There are so many beautiful children … so many beautiful families who have their whole lives changed. It's vicious.

"I'm obsessed with this. I get attached to these families. If I have to beg and plead to raise money, I will.''

This is the best part of Vitale. Forget the Halls of Fame (he is in 10). Forget his celebrity. Forget his carbonated personality. Vitale, at age 72, remains a man with a large unbreakable heart. He has given so much time and shed so many tears, and still, he will not stop.

On Friday night, Vitale will host his seventh annual gala in Sarasota, which is sold out. Like the previous six, he expects it to raise more than $1 million to fight pediatric cancer. Like the previous six, he has pushed and prodded and pled until 50 celebrities have paid their own way to attend. In the meantime, he spends much of his day trying to raise donations through his website ( DickVitale.com).

He does not have to do this. He is rich, and he is famous, and he has five grandchildren to chase around. Yet, Vitale is consumed by the fight.

"He lives it, he breathes it, every day,'' said Pat Wright, who has his own foundation ( PaytonWright.org). "He's a true champion. He doesn't know it, but he's my mentor.''

Once, Vitale's fundraising efforts were in the name of various cancers. It was only after the death of Payton Wright that he began to specialize in the fight against pediatric cancer.

It was five years ago when Pat and his wife, Holly, lost Payton. No, they are not remotely over it. Parents never are. Payton was one of those little girls who filled the room with her personality, a girl who loved people and music and frogs.

But in 2006, she began to complain about pain in her knee. In early May of that year, she was diagnosed with cancer. A year later, she died.

At Payton's funeral, Vitale approached Pat. "We can't bring your little girl back,'' he said, "but I'm going to get all my buddies together, and we're going to raise a million dollars in her name." That was the start.

A related story: In 2010, a 10-year-old first baseman named Kyle Peters from Sarasota kept having headaches while at a baseball tournament. Migraines, doctors said at first. But after an MRI exam, a brain tumor was discovered.

These days, Kyle is in remission, and he's playing baseball again. Along the way, his doctors told him part of his treatment was because of a $500,000 grant in the name of Payton Wright.

"Kyle truly feels that the money from the Dick Vitale Fund is why he's in remission,'' said Jennifer Peters, his mother.

Why does Vitale keep pushing? Stories like these are why. Making a difference is why.

"People don't realize,'' Vitale said. "Insurance doesn't cover airplane flights for the families or hotel rooms. This disease just changes the life of a family. It's devastating.''

For instance, one of Vitale's guests for Friday night was supposed to be an energetic 3-year-old named Eddie Livingston. Instead, Eddie is in New York for his fourth surgery. He has already had chemo and radiation.

Eddie was 2 when his parents noticed he was limping. Eventually, doctors discovered a grapefruit-sized tumor near his kidney.

"People like Dick make such a difference,'' said Janine Livingston, Eddie's mother. "It's amazing what he's doing for awareness and raising a money toward a cure.''

There are other stories. Adrian, who died. Taylor, whose back pain from lifting weights revealed a mass on his spine. Ashley. And others. Too many others.

For Vitale, this started years ago, when he helped the late Jim Valvano onto a stage. Vitale expected Valvano to say "thanks,'' then return to his seat. Instead, Valvano gave one of the most unforgettable speeches in the history of sports. Vitale can still hear the words.

"He does something,'' Wright said. "That's the thing. Do something. Too many people don't do anything.''

For Vitale, this is the good fight. How can he do this? If you know Vitale, here's a better question: How can he not?

From now on, this should be Vitale's legacy. He cared. He tried. He fought. Ask him how he would like to be remembered, and he doesn't say a thing about being a television commentator or a celebrity.

"I'd like to be remembered as a guy who reached his hand out,'' Vitale said. "As a guy who cared about people. That would reflect on my parents.

"I'd like to be known as a guy who gave a damn.''

When kids are at risk, what more can any of us give?