Mark Story: Vitale fights cancers that afflict children

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 8, 2011 

Hall of Fame Inductions

Dick Vitale was looking for the Kentucky-North Carolina rivalry to fuel donations when he invited the schools' basketball coaches.

ED ZURGA — AP

Over the phone, Dick Vitale is weeping.

After a moment, the iconic ESPN college basketball analyst draws a deep breath. "I'm sorry to be so emotional," he says, his familiar voice cracking, "I just get really upset when we lose another child to cancer."

On May 20 in Sarasota, Fla., Kentucky Coach John Calipari and North Carolina's Roy Williams will be special guests at the sixth annual Dick Vitale Gala, a fund-raiser that benefits the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

With his "diaper dandies" and "dipsy-doo dunk-a-roos," Vitale's ebullient announcing style is long on showmanship.

He's stone-cold serious about fighting cancer that afflicts children.

Vitale's interest in the battle against the illness that kills more Americans than any other except heart disease can be traced back to his friendship with Jim Valvano.

The former North Carolina State basketball coach and ESPN hoops analyst died from bone cancer in 1993, only weeks after giving the memorable "don't give up, don't ever give up" speech at the ESPYs.

"I remember one night going up to see Jimmy in his hotel room," Vitale says, "and he was suffering. I'll never forget this, he said 'take the worst toothache you've ever had, double it, and then spread that pain all over your entire body. That's how I feel.' It was horrible."

In recent years, Dickie V has narrowed the focus of his efforts to combat the Big C to helping children.

That is the legacy of Payton Wright.

"A beautiful, beautiful little girl," Vitale says, before pausing. "So sad."

'It's not fair'

After Vitale and his wife, Lorraine, held their first anti-cancer fund-raising gala in 2006, he says people who lived in his neighborhood in Bradenton, Fla., came to him with an appeal for help for a local 4-year-old girl.

In December 2005, Payton Wright started complaining that her knee hurt, says her father, Patrick Wright.

From then until May 2006, "the doctors kept saying they thought it was probably growing pains," Patrick says. "They said, 'She'll grow out of this.'"

On May 17, 2006, Payton was again complaining of leg pain. Looking for answers, her father took her to the emergency room of St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital.

There, a doctor didn't like the way Payton responded when her leg was pressed against. A bone scan was ordered.

A horrifying result came back.

"They told us," Patrick says, "she had a tumor on her spine."

That day, Payton's mom, Holly, was home sick with the flu.

"Talk about the phone call you never want to make, I had to call my wife and tell her that Payton had cancer," Patrick says. "You go to the hospital thinking growing pains, then you call home and say cancer."

Eventually, the doctors told the Wrights that Payton, one of the family's three daughters, was suffering from medulloepithelioma, a rare cancer that often afflicts the brain.

"The problem with the Internet," Patrick says, "is I'd go on to research and I couldn't find one story with a survivor."

In August 2006, Vitale put together a party to raise money for Payton and her family at his house.

"I figured maybe we could raise $30,000, $40,000," he says. "We'd already had our big gala and I didn't see how we could go back to the same people for money. We raised over $130,000, $135,000 to help that family."

A little girl dies

At the party, Payton was so overcome with pain, Vitale says she started screaming. Her mom took her from Vitale's home straight to the hospital.

First at All Children's in St. Pete, then at the Duke Children's Hospital in North Carolina, doctors tried an aggressive regimen of radiation treatments, essentially trying to burn the cancer from a little girl's body.

Before 2006 drew to a close, Payton had lost movement in her limbs and was paralyzed. She also went blind.

During this time, Vitale says he and his family were on a vacation in the Bahamas when his cell phone rang and it was Patrick Wright.

While the ESPN announcer watched his grandchildren splash and swim, he listened to Patrick describe what was happening to his 4-year-old.

"There my grandkids are having such a good time in a wonderful place, and I'm listening to Patrick about what's going on with Payton," Vitale says. "I got choked up. It really got to me. I told my wife, 'It's not fair. No child should ever have to suffer like Payton is.' "

In December 2006, with no sign the radiation was helping, Patrick says the family stopped all such treatment of their little girl to spare her further suffering.

On May 29, 2007, Payton died.

"I went to the funeral," Vitale says, "and I was crying. Everyone was. Ever since then, all I can tell you, I've been obsessed about kids and cancer."

Waging the fight

In choosing Calipari and Williams to be honored at his 2011 gala, Vitale acknowledges he is hoping to tap into the Kentucky-North Carolina men's basketball rivalry to aid in raising money. His goal is to raise more than $1 million from the event, which will go to combat pediatric cancer.

"If you're a Kentucky fan, you can't let North Carolina out-give you, can you?" Vitale says (the gala is sold out, but if you are interested in contributing money, go to dickvitaleonline.com to learn how).

Three other children who have died from various forms of cancer will be honored at the 2011 Vitale gala. One of those, 14-month-old Adrian Littlejohn, passed away just last Sunday.

"That's why I'm so emotional on the phone today," Vitale said Monday. "It breaks my heart to see these beautiful little children suffer. I've been so blessed in my life, and if I can play any role in stopping this, I have to do it."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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