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Art Korney will never forget the day he found out his son Coleton had cancer.
Coleton Korney was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a type of tumor that forms on bone or tissue. At the hospital, shortly after hearing his son’s diagnosis, Art Korney got a phone call.
“An absolute low of our lives and he calls you up,” Korney said. “He said, ‘This is Dick Vitale. We’re here to help.'”
Dick Vitale is synonymous with college basketball.
He’s been with ESPN since 1979, the year the network launched. He is the original PTPer, calling ESPN’s first-ever college basketball broadcast.
But nearly as long as Vitale has been a part of college basketball on TV, he has been involved with the fight against cancer. He helped Jim Valvano to the ESPYS’ stage where Valvano delivered his iconic “Don’t give up” speech.
Vitale was there at the inception of the V Foundation.
More than driving donations and lending his name and celebrity to the cause of cancer research, Vitale has made personal connections with cancer patients and their families and helped them confront their lives with cancer and thrive in their lives after it.
“The hope that he brought to the unknown, it lifted your spirits and gave you hope,” Korney said.
“Prayers and dollars,” said Vince Grande, whose son Enzo was diagnosed with Leukemia at three and a half years old. “That’s what we ask for for cancer patients, to continue research. Dick brought us into his home. … It’s not just about cancer, it’s about life.”
In October, Vitale announced he had been diagnosed with lymphoma and would face six months of chemotherapy. He knew what that meant.
“I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that cancer can have on families, on children, and on all of our loved ones,” Vitale said in a statement. “It can bring you to your knees. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. It robs you of so many things, including life itself for some of the most unfortunate patients. I never lose sight of that, and that’s why I feel so lucky.”
We’re here for you, Dickie V 💪 ❤️ pic.twitter.com/advesGMoQ6
— ESPN (@espn) November 10, 2021
As much as Vitale is known in college hoops and for his charitable work, his impact is almost palpably felt by those who have been helped by him and the work of the V Foundation: Children and their families, who have faced the horrors of pediatric cancer and are now living life after cancer have been inspired by Vitale’s work. As such, they are becoming the next generation of cancer fighters.
“Some kids want to be rock stars, want to be athletes,” said Elain Grande. “My son wants to be Dick Vitale.”
Enzo Grande faced four years of chemotherapy, 18 spinal taps, 20 blood transfusions and a liver disorder before being declared cancer free.
COVID-19 and cancer hit at the same time for Mikari Tarpley. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in March of 2020, shortly before turning 16. An actress and Broadway performer, Tarpley attends a performance arts high school in Smyrna, Georgia, but going through treatment during a pandemic kept her away from her friends. She found support from fellow cancer patients.
“Cancer is awful and needs to be destroyed,” said Tarpley.
“[The treatment] was hard. It was awful. But the support people give makes this ten times better. Even though I was so sick and tired all the time, it didn’t feel as bad. Something about that support all around you and feeling all that love … [the treatment] wasn’t as bad.”
When both Grande and Tarpley were going through their treatment they knew they wanted to find ways to help cancer patients, especially children.
“It’s tough going through cancer overall. You don’t want to see a kid suffer … I don’t want anyone to go through that,” said Grande, who is now 13 and cancer free. “I experienced it. I know how kids feel. It’s crucial to think about what kids go through at such a young age.”
To help others, Grande, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida, started Enzo’s Smackdown to Cancer. He loves professional wrestling, so he borrowed the name from the WWE. He collected donations and toys to deliver to patients in a children’s hospital in Florida.
Tarpley knew she would miss her 16th birthday party due to her treatment schedule. Instead of a party and presents, she asked for donations for the Pediatric Cancers and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She wanted to help cancer and sickle cell anemia patients. Then they met Vitale.
Family friends connected the Grande and Korney families with Vitale. Tarpley wrote him a letter. With their own stories of how they are thriving and the compassion they have for other cancer patients, they joined a larger community there to fight cancer alongside them. Each of them and their families have been involved with the V Foundation and Vitale’s annual gala.
Since 2006, Vitale’s gala has raised over $44 million for pediatric cancer research and the V Foundation. Before the pandemic, it would regularly draw nearly 1,000 guests from the sports world and cancer survivors like Tarpley, Grande and Korney.
“When I saw so many sports players and coaches supporting [cancer research at the gala], I was ecstatic,” said Korney, who is now 17 and a year from his cancer being declared in remission. “I was beyond words. It was a momentous occasion to see all these people in this giant hall there to support.”
“These guys really want to help cancer research,” Grande said. “And then I really was, like, I want to do that. … I want to be like Dick Vitale when I’m older. I want to follow his legacy.”
Grande thinks playing sports in the future might not be there for him, so he wants to be a broadcaster like Vitale and wants Vitale to beat cancer like he did. But it’s also Vitale’s legacy with the V Foundation and as a champion for the cause of victory over cancer that has left its mark.
The resounding sentiment from Grande, Tarpley and Korney about the effect that Vitale and his work has had on their lives: inspiration. Cancer has touched their lives and, like Vitale and Valvano before him, they have chosen to use their time working to help others.
“I can keep doing this work for the rest of my life,” Tarpley said. “It’s a part of me now and I want to keep doing it.”