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Prose and Kohn

Dick Vitale Gala remains a night of hope

ESPN host Kevin Negandhi, Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, Former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Dick Vitale, NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon, University of Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes and V Foundation CEO Shane Jacobson pose before the Dick Vitale Gala.
ESPN host Kevin Negandhi, Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, Former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Dick Vitale, NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon, University of Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes and V Foundation CEO Shane Jacobson pose before the Dick Vitale Gala.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Jim Kelly spent a long time searching for the answer. 

To the sports world at large, Kelly is known as the quarterback who lost four consecutive Super Bowls with the Bills in the 1990s. After those losses, injuries forced him to retire in 1996. He used to be angry about the way his career went, he said. 

Kelly, a devout Christian, said he wondered at the time why God put him through all of those hard times. 

Kelly now knows the answer, he said. The trials of his career were necessary to prepare him for the difficult tests to come — this time, to win them.

Kelly was one of the honorees at the annual Dick Vitale Gala, held May 3 at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. The event raises money for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, specifically pediatric cancer. Every year, the event moves its guests (and namesake) to tears, both because of the stories of Vitale's All-Courageous Team — kids who have shown an unbelievable fighting spirit against pediatric cancer — and because of the generosity of the attendees, who raise millions in pursuit of the dream that one day, cancer could have a consistent cure. 

Jim Kelly shared his own cancer story before the 2024 Dick Vitale Gala and provided hope to those going through similar situations.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Kelly, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback, knows all too well what the All-Courageous kids have felt. Kelly was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2013. His battle with the disease was long, featuring multiple recurrences and a 12-hour surgery in 2018 that reconstructed his jaw. At one point, Kelly was given a 10% chance to live. In January 2019, however, he was declared cancer-free — and remains that way. 

That answer he was looking for, about the way his football career went? He found it. 

"God had a plan for me," Kelly said. "I may have lost four Super Bowls, but I kicked cancer's butt four times." 

And to the All-Courageous team, he had four words: "Don't ever give up." 

Kelly's words provided hope. It was far from the only hope the evening would provide. Kelly's words, alongside the words of Vitale and the other honorees — New York Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon and University of Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes — and the actions of the people in attendance, would prove even more of it. During the event, philanthropists Mark Pentecost and Cindy Pentecost announced they would match the total amount raised at the event up to $12 million. By evening's end, the Gala raised $12.8 million dollars, and with the Pentecosts adding an additional $12 million, it brought the total raised to $24.8 million, shattering last year's record of $11 million. 

None of it would be possible without Vitale. The event started as something Vitale and his wife, Lorraine Vitale, held in their backyard, and has grown into one of the biggest fundraisers of its ilk. Vitale has kept the event's momentum going despite not having the easiest last 12 months. Vitale is still dealing with lingering effects from his vocal cord cancer treatment. He has been on vocal rest off and on since December 2021, when doctors first found precancerous dysplasia and ulcerated lesions on his vocal cords. The Hall of Fame college basketball broadcaster missed the 2023-2024 season because his voice was not strong enough.

Before the Gala, Vitale had been on vocal rest following a January procedure to improve his voice. He hopes to return to the booth for the 2024-2025 season — and at the Gala, he spoke. His voice had a rasp, but his message was as clear as ever. 

"I see all of you, and I'm so thankful to be able to do just a little bit (to help)," Vitale said. 

It's more than a little. As Barnes said, even though Vitale is the voice of college basketball to millions of people, Vitale's legacy will ultimately be all that he's done for cancer research, and the care that he shows for young cancer patients. 

Of course, the event would not be complete without a little ribbing of its namesake. Barnes said when he coached at Providence College, the school held a Midnight Madness event to kick off every season. One of the evening's activities was a Dick Vitale sound-alike contest. Every year, Barnes said, someone would nail it. 

Barnes would give his own impression at the end of his Gala press conference, letting out an "awesome, baby!" that nailed Vitale's enthusiasm if not so much his tenor. (On an A-F scale, it deserved a B or B+.) 

Want to know how bright Vitale's star shines? Jeter shared the story on when he first met Vitale. It was during Jeter's first year of professional baseball, at a minor league game in Bradenton. There were "probably 10 people" watching the game, Jeter said. As he took the field, he noticed that Vitale was one of them. 

"That made me nervous," Jeter said. "I had always admired him." 

No, Jeter wasn't a star yet. But he was a first-round draft pick of the Yankees with high expectations, and here he was, getting starstruck by a college basketball broadcaster. That's how magnetic and beloved Vitale was and is. Jeter said he and Vitale's relationship grew throughout the years, with Vitale always sitting next to the Yankees dugout when they played the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa — and rooting for the Rays. They became close, Jeter said. He was honored to attend the Gala. 

The event has become a night you mark on the calendar as soon as December becomes January. This year's was especially powerful. From the staggering amount of money raised, to the laughs, to Kelly's story of perseverance, the night was about hope — hope for the people currently in a fight with cancer, and hope in the people working tirelessly to find a cure. 

It's a great feeling, one that stems from Vitale. Make no mistake: he will never give up. 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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