Never Ever Give Up: Dick Vitale's Passion for Fighting Pediatric Cancer

July 22, 2020
Kristie L. Kahl

The V Foundation is set to host its annual Dick Vitale Gala on Sept. 4, 2020, virtually, to help raise funds and awareness for pediatric cancer.

ESPN college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale has a passion for winning — on and off the court.

As a longtime champion to achieve victory over cancer, Vitale has been helping the V Foundation in its mission for a cure since the beginning, focusing his efforts specifically on pediatric cancer research. Through this mission, Vitale hosts the annual Dick Vitale Gala — this year, on Sept. 4 as a virtual event – to raise funds and awareness for premiere pediatric cancer research across the nation.

Vitale sat down with CURE to discuss the late Jim Valvano and his involvement with the V Foundation, as well as his mission to fight pediatric cancer and why others, too, should never give up in fighting the disease.

CURE: You've been involved with the V foundation since its beginning. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Jim Valvano and how you got involved with the foundation?

Vitale: Jimmy and I worked together at ESPN and we became really good friends. Our closeness really came about when he came down with cancer. (We talked on) a basically a regular basis… It was really sad to see a guy who was on top of the world, all of a sudden, at such a young age…and he passed in 1993.

ESPN really initiated the foundation, but where I got an opportunity was when I Introduced Jim at the first ESPY Awards. He was the first recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Dustin Hoffman introduced me after talking about Arthur Ashe. And then I introduced Jimmy, and we thought Jimmy would just sit there because if you had seen Jimmy the night of the event, you would never ever believe that he could deliver the speech that he delivered. When I went to him and I said, “Look, we can make it easy for you. We'll just bring a microphone to where you're sitting. And you say thank you after you’re introduced.” He was upset about that. He said, “Just get me on that stage.” I stood next to him because I thought that he was going to sit down. I had no idea he was going to give a 25-minute, electrifying speech, and he did.

Jimmy's motto was to never ever give up. How have you used that in the fight against cancer, in particular with pediatric cancer?

Well, 24/7 we try to work at it because it's not easy. But we don't give up, man we don't give up, because Jimmy's philosophy was don't give up. I also love Jimmy's philosophy when he said, “Every day should be moved to thought, to laughter and to tears.” And we try to carry that on. I have tried (to do that) my whole life — every day, basically.

You see behind me, Hall of Fame Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award for sports broadcasting, those are all great, but there's nothing as great for me as the Dick Vitale Gala. There’s nothing worse than a mom and dad putting their child to rest — so young, so beautiful with dreams and goals. Forty-five to 50 mothers and fathers every day will hear four words that no mom and dad ever wants to hear: Your child has cancer. It's life changing.

It’s not just about meeting the kids and to get to know their families. People get to know about their history, what they battle, and I share that to the people and the response we get is just incredible because these kids are so special.

How did you get involved specifically with pediatric cancer?

My first year, Nick Valvano, the CEO at the time, asked if I could do anything to throw an event at my house to bring in some new people. So, I said sure I'll do it. So, we did it. The response was unreal, with over 350 people. We raised about $300,000.

Maybe a week later, I got a knock on my door, and it's a woman telling me that she read about what I did for pediatrics. One of my neighbors, Peyton, had come down with a very serious cancer, and my neighbor was wondering if there was anything I could do for her. The neighbor came back with Peyton. I look at this beautiful blonde girl (of) 4 or 5 years old. And when I went to bed that night, I told my wife we have to do something. So we did.

We had a party at our house. I hoped to raise $50,000 to give to the family so they could concentrate on their daughter and not worry about the mortgage. It was perfectly planned. It was going to be her last day of treatment in terms of getting out of the hospital. No more chemo. I get choked up about it.

The response was great. We raised way more than I thought, about $150,000.

Peyton came with her doctor. But all of the sudden, she started screaming and crying, wanting to go home. She was in a lot of pain. Fortunately, the doctor was here. And he just didn't like the reaction at all. He said, “Look, if you guys stay here, I'll take Peyton back to the hospital for tests. Something's not right.” They called back later after the testing, the cancer had spread all over.

I'll never forget one thing that happened that just totally blew me away. My wife and I were at home with our grandkids, they're going down these slides and they're having a blast, and the phone rings. I grabbed the phone and it's Patrick, Peyton’s father. He says, “I have good news to share with you. I can't believe it, today they've given me permission at Duke Hospital to take Peyton to breakfast in a wheelchair.” He was so thrilled. My wife looks at me and I said, “That's great, Patrick, I'm so happy for you.” And I hung up. I said to my wife, “Can you believe this? We're sitting here watching our grandkids go down slides and he’s thrilled he’s taking his daughter for breakfast. It’s just not fair.”

She ultimately lost her battle, but she will never be forgotten.

For more information about the Dick Vitale Gala, visit www.v.org.

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