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For some athletes, charity part of life's game plan

Often moved by personal events, they strive to make a difference

Published December 21, 2003

"In charity there is no excess." - Francis Bacon

Her name was Heather Farr. She had discovered a lump in her breast. Probably an hormonal cyst, benign, nothing serious, especially at her age. Cancer is supposed to afflict the middle-aged, isn't it?

Val Skinner, a fellow LPGA tour golfer, remembers how distracted Farr seemed at the end of a tournament six months later in Chicago. Farr said she had a doctor's appointment to re-examine the lump that hadn't gone away. "Oh, you're so young," Skinner said. "I'm sure it's nothing."

It was breast cancer.

Four years later, on Nov. 20, 1993, Heather Farr died. She was 28. Skinner still cries about it. A lot. She was with Heather at the end.

The loss of a family member, a friend, sometimes someone met just in passing, can have a profound effect. So can surviving a personal crisis. Or seeing in someone else the impact of misfortune.

Some who might never have even written a check become driven to eradicate roadblocks to a good life. Athletes have the benefit of fame and wealth with which to advance their cause.

Many settle for, well, whatever they're expected to do - visit a hospital, give away tickets, hand out turkeys on Thanksgiving, attend team Christmas parties for the underprivileged.

To others, whatever they can offer - passion, time, effort, money - never is enough. Giving back is not an indulgence; it is an obligation. The Talmud says it best: To save one life is to save the world.

Val Skinner: We think we're bulletproof

Within days of Farr's death, Skinner was signing up for every breast-cancer charity event she could find. But what gnawed at her was that Farr was so young. For women in their 20s and 30s "unless there was a family history, it wasn't even discussed."

At the LPGA's 50th anniversary gala in 1999 Skinner received an award from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. She met the foundation's senior counsel, Diane Balma, whose breast cancer had been misdiagnosed at age 29. Unlike Farr, her gut instinct told her something wasn't right. Balma sought a second opinion. The surgery saved her life.

"We talked about my concerns," Skinner said. "I wanted to focus on younger women. There was nothing out there. It just made sense to create something to educate and instill in them early health habits. Even today, women in their 20s and 30s are focused on careers and getting married and starting a family. We're young; we think we're bulletproof."

In 1999 she founded the LIFE Event (LPGA Pros In the Fight to Eradicate breast cancer), a charity golf tournament with many of the world's top players. In four years it has raised $2-million for the Komen Foundation and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Skinner's foundation is funding, among other things, a CINJ fellowship in middle schools for a health-and-education curriculum on breast cancer. "Young girls going into puberty won't just learn how to self-exam," Skinner said. "They'll go home and ask, "Mom, "do you do self-exams?'

"It should be like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes; if you start doing self-exams by 20, you'll be more familiar with your body, you'll know how you should feel and what questions to ask the doctor.

"Look, fear dominates a lot of health issues. We want to create enough concern to be responsible, not to scare women. ... But not doing a self-exam is like not putting on a seat belt when you're driving 100 mph. Why wouldn't you? Maybe it isn't enough, but if that's all we've got now, then it's the least thing we should do."

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Jamie Moyer: Where do they go? What do they do?

"It's unfortunate that people die," Jamie Moyer said, "but people are left behind, and a lot of them are children. Where do they go? What do they do?"

The Mariners pitcher and his wife, Karen, were able to endow a weekend bereavement camp in South Bend, Ind., where her father, Digger Phelps, coached basketball at Notre Dame. When Moyer was traded to the Mariners in 1996 he discovered there was nothing like it in Seattle. Moyer Foundation fund raising led to the creation of Camp Erin in nearby Everett. It memorializes Erin Metcalf, a hospice patient and close family friend who died in 2000 at age 17. The Moyers are starting a camp in Seattle and plan more around the state.

Their foundation, which has raised about $3-million for more than 100 organizations, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center work toward increased awareness for early-detection cancer research. Hutchinson, a 12-year manager with the Tigers, Cardinals and Reds, died of lung cancer at 45.)

When Moyer was pitching for Baltimore in 1993 he met Gregory Chaya, a 2-year-old undergoing treatment at Johns Hopkins for a rare form of leukemia. Moyer had a son about Gregory's age, and it scared him. "You see kids in beds, knowing some of them may walk out the door in a day or two and some may never leave the hospital," he said. "And not being a doctor, there's only so much you can do.

"The biggest thing is creating an awareness. You can't force people to do things, but if you can create an awareness, maybe they can make better choices." Thus was born the Gregory Fund. Gregory has been in remission 10 years.

Camp Erin, along with the usual children's activities, has counselors who had the same experience as a child, and professional counselors from a nearby hospice. More to the point, Moyer said, "all the kids are in the same situation. They have allies.

"When they arrive after school on Friday they're usually very shy and keep everything inside. By Saturday they've pretty much come out of their shell. Each one shows the counselors and everyone who they lost. It's amazing the stories that come out. "This is my best friend and we did this or that.' "My dad took me to my first Mariners game.' "My grandma took me to church every week.' "

This year the children drew a name, a picture, something on a small white paper bag. "At night, we put in some sand and a candle and the kids put them into a small boat and said a name," Moyer said haltingly, his voice breaking, "and we sent them out as luminaries on a small boat. There was a full moon over the lake."

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John Lynch: Kids are great dreamers

It begins at each of Tampa Bay's 32 Boys and Girls Clubs, where middle- and high school students are recognized for athletic achievements, academic accomplishments and community involvement.

Eight are selected as John Lynch Stars of the Month. One will become Star of the Year. That winner, and four athletes with disabilities, receive $5,000 college scholarships from the Lynch Family Legacy, part of the John Lynch Foundation.

"The disabled students we honor at our banquet, some of their stories are the most touching, to see what these kids have overcome," said Lynch, the Bucs five-time Pro Bowl safety. "Some people see their situations as devastating; they see themselves as normal kids with maybe a few more challenges. ... There are a lot of tears."

John Lynch and the former Linda Allred were high school students together in Del Mar, Calif. "Our families taught us that giving back isn't just a nice thing to do; it's a responsibility," he said. "We were also taught that there are a number of ways you can do it. Most valuable is your time.

"That means more than anything, particularly in the field I'm in. One of the great things about being a professional athlete is having a platform to get things done. You can inspire kids; they'll listen to you.

"I see a lot of curiosity in their eyes. That's one thing I love. Kids are great dreamers. I encourage them to keep doing that. That's what see - kids who just want someone to tell them that they can do things."

Lynch also has been nominated, last season and this, for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. It recognizes community service as well as playing excellence.

For several years after the Bucs drafted him in 1993, the Lynches gave to various charities, trying to find what in particular appealed to them.

It was children. They believed they could teach them to give to their communities. "We threw it all together," he said. In 1998 the John Lynch Foundation was born. "Our mission is to develop quality young leaders."

Since its inception it has raised $500,000. Lynch also contributes $100 per tackle, $500 per interception, $1,000 per sack and $1,000 per victory.

It has not been a great season. With one game remaining, Lynch has 70 tackles, two interceptions and half a sack; the Bucs have seven wins. Total: $15,500, compared with last season's $27,300.

But success isn't measured only in dollars. "Last year we saw our first class of scholarship kids graduate from college," Lynch said. "And a lot of them want to be involved in mentoring the younger kids. That's a new program we're starting because of their interest. Now that's really cool."

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Jeanette Lee: They want to be inspired

At first glance, you might not see the scoliosis, the way Jeanette Lee's spine snakes left as it approaches her waist, the scars of eight surgeries, the constant pain.

You'll never notice it as the Black Widow circles a felt-covered table, cue in hand, ready to devour another opponent. The all-black outfits worn in competition by the Brooklyn-born Korean-American and her talent as a 10-year professional pool player has earned her that nickname.

Scoliosis is taken from the Greek word skolios (curvature). She was 12 when the disease struck. She raged against the condition that required a steel rod in her back and an ugly brace the length of her spine. Why her? she would wail.

"My mother always said things happen for a reason," Lee said.

Today she is national spokeswoman for the Scoliosis Association, and the Jeanette Lee Foundation raises money to help create more public awareness, physical therapy programs and scoliosis research.

She has seen it at its worst, "people completely bent over, crooked, whatever, all these young girls and boys who desperately want someone to notice them as more than just deformed. And they want to be inspired by someone they think is cool. ... "Had I not gone through it, these young girls would look at me like, "Who are you? You're going to come here and act like you know what this is like? Who are you to tell me to keep my chin up? What have you ever been through?' That's the honor that I have, that I can look at them and say, "You know what? I understand. I've been there, and there's so much hope and opportunity out there for you.' And they know that I get it."

"People don't see how scoliosis can be a lethal disease," she said. "They don't see it like AIDS or cancer. It doesn't have big organizations and celebrity supporters."

She discovered pool at age 18. It was love at first sight. Within four years she turned pro. Two years later she was the world's No. 1 female player. The pain, though persistent then and now, is manageable. Her ability and fame enables her "to make a difference. I realized that with the blessings I have, I could do something to change people's lives. It's made me a more complete person. My life has so much more meaning."

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Jim Courier: Everyone spreads the love

"The first thing they told me," Jim Courier said, "was, "You're lucky, you're very lucky, and you need to be doing something to reflect that, to give to others who aren't as lucky.' "

It was 1988. Courier had graduated from junior tennis to the pro circuit. "Very quickly, the older players kind of grab you and say, "Hey, I've got this event; would you come and do it for me?' It's passed down through generations of tennis players and becomes something of a quid pro quo. "You do mine and I'll do yours,' and everyone spreads the love."

He jumped into other players' charity events with a vengeance. By December 1992, the year he was ranked No. 1 in the world,the Dade City resident raised $100,000 at the USF Sun Dome, playing Pete Sampras after a pair of preteen sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, put on their own exhibition.

With his retirement in May 2000 Courier shifted into charitable overdrive, conducting even more clinics, playing in more exhibitions and putting together the Grand Slam Jam, a tennis-music festival in Austin, Texas.

John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Sampras and the entire U.S. Davis Cup team have answered his call, as have cyclist Lance Armstrong, former Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill and musicians Mike Mills of REM and Lars Ulrich of Metallica. The annual event has raised more than $1-million for cancer research.

Then there are the kids. In March he staged a clinic at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center at Bartlett Park, not realizing until he got there that it was in one of the community's poorer neighborhoods. His mind began racing. March 23 Courier will stage another clinic there, and follow it that night with Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and James Blake playing in his Mercedes-Benz Classic at the St. Pete Times Forum to benefit the center's First Serve education and tennis program.

"Kids have to make choices," Courier said. "All we can do is offer them more options, give them opportunities. ... There are a lot of destructive forces out there. This is an opportunity for kids that don't have a lot of other options.

"The thing is, anybody can donate cans of food or just write a check, and that's all very worthwhile. But it's not too much to ask of athletes to pick their head up from their little world and see that they're in a unique position to leverage what they have to help others. Look," Courier said, "there are tons of athletes doing all kinds of charitable work, some more than others. I don't feel I'm unique."

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Saku Koivu: You know what? You did it

It began shortly after takeoff on the 20-hour flight from Amsterdam to Montreal, a stabbing pain in Canadiens center Saku Koivu's back. It grew worse, and spread to his abdomen. "The next day I called the team doctor, told him the symptoms, and he said, "Get over here right away.' "

The diagnosis: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Cancer. Medical text abbreviation: NHL. It can be fatal.

The Canadiens captain missed virtually all the 2001-02 season undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. Part of the treatment: examinations involving PET-scans with a sophisticated $8-million imaging device. Montreal General Hospital didn't have one. The nearest was a two-hour drive away in Sherbrooke.

This would have to change, he decided.

The Saku Koivu Foundation is raising $2.5-million toward the purchase of a PET-scanner; it is about $200,000 short of that goal. The Canadian government will match the $2.5-million. Montreal General's foundation and corporate supporters will contribute. Koivu will donate $1,000 for each point he gets this season. He had 71 in 2002-03. The team will match his points donation and add $100,000 if it wins the Stanley Cup.

The scanner will be running in a few months. "I know that it will be used to diagnose cancer in earlier stages in thousands of people and save more lives," Koivu said. "I know it's always going to be there and that I've done something to make a difference."

It used to be hard for Koivu to join teammates visiting children undergoing cancer treatments "because I didn't know what the kids were going through and how they felt," he said. "After my year with cancer it's a lot easier." He knows their mentality and senses they're more comfortable with him, knowing he has gone through it, too.

"It's very difficult to see a kid and the doctor tells you he has maybe two months to live. You can't help thinking, "He's only 7; why does he have to die?' But that's the reality and if there's something I can do to make his day ... " Koivu collected himself. " ... to make a kid's day better and that's going to make him fight harder, it's an amazing thing."

At one hospital visit this year, "one kid went, "Remember me?' and I said, "No, I don't,' and he said, "Well, I sure remember you 'cause you were here last year. Next year when you come here I won't be here. I'll be home.' ... A lot of kids, especially young boys who play hockey, they know I had cancer. They go, "You know what? You did it. I'm going to play hockey soon with my buddies.' "

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