Rizzo hosts second 'Walk Off for Cancer'
After winning his battle, Cubs first baseman helping others fight disease
PARKLAND, Fla. -- An Ohio mother and daughter, Niki and Molli Jahns, made the 16-hour drive to Florida so they could take part in Anthony Rizzo's second "Walk Off for Cancer" on Sunday at Pine Trails Park. It was something Molli wanted as her 16th birthday present.
Lauren Bendesky, 16, was at Pine Trails Park, where the walk was held, but couldn't take part. She's undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma, a cancer which forms in nerve tissue, and a 5-kilometer walk would be too much. She and her family were there to support the effort.
"[Rizzo is] a local hero," said mom Sharon Bendesky.
The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation received a check for $1,422 from Kaitlin Soto of Chicago, who raised it during a golf tournament this past summer.
But the most excited person at Sunday's walk may have been Ronit Reoven. The high-school teacher was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma about three months after giving birth to her second son, Rhuel. She couldn't take part last year because she was undergoing treatment. But at the end of April, doctors told Reoven she was completely clear. On Sunday, she was able to join about 750 people who attended the event.
"I'm walking, I'm walking," Reoven cheered, as she began the friendly walk around the park.
Parkland Mayor Michael Udine was back for the second walk, which is expected to raise close to $100,000. Udine pledged $25 for every home run the Cubs first baseman hit in 2013, and on Sunday, he presented a check to Rizzo for $575 for his 23 homers. Plus, Udine vowed to do the same again in 2014.
Fifth graders from the North Elementary School in Des Plaines, Ill., held a walk around their school to raise money for cancer and donated $1,152 to Rizzo's foundation. A group called the "Rizzonators" rallied to raise funds, too. Reoven's support group is called "Team Reo."
But the Jahns, who hail from Fairborn, Ohio, were the ones the Rizzos wanted to meet. Molli is healthy, plays softball and goes to Reds games when the Cubs are in Cincinnati. Rizzo is her favorite player.
"I want to be a pediatrician after high school," said Molli, who lost her grandfather to cancer. "I thought about studying oncology, and I love the Cubs and I love baseball, so this kind of tied everything together for me."
Taking part in the walk was part of Molli's birthday wish. She invited donations through Facebook and sent out letters to businesses around her hometown. Her goal was to raise $1,000 and she topped that, collecting $1,065.
"It's just a really neat birthday present," mom Niki said. "I'm very proud of her."
They will drive back to Ohio on Sunday night after taking time to go to the beach. Molli has exams on Tuesday.
During the season, Rizzo would visit Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago once a month. He doesn't walk into the cancer ward and announce that he's a survivor.
"I don't tell everyone that I had cancer," Rizzo said. "Sometimes people are just excited to see a Cubs player. I don't go in there to let people know I had cancer. I go in there to try to help. Sometimes you see families a little more down. It really depends on the family.
"When I do tell people, it's a personal thing. They're going through it, I've been through it. I know I can relate. I know exactly what their parents are going through because I saw my parents go through it."
While Rizzo was undergoing chemotherapy, he would hide in his bedroom and play games on his Xbox, plus eat brownies, pasta and subs and drink milkshakes. He told that story to a young boy in San Diego whom he met in January 2011. The two have stayed in touch since -- the youngster is a fifth grader and in remission.
"There are some families you get more attached to," Rizzo said.
Rizzo doesn't want TV cameras following him during his hospital visits. He isn't looking for publicity.
"It's more about seeing the kids," he said. "If you bring cameras, it may be weird."
Someone from the Cubs' community relations office typically accompanies him.
"It was nice for me personally," Rizzo said. "I like to go. You put everything in perspective. Even going through it all, even myself, I'll get out of line ... and maybe take something for granted. It's nice to see [the kids] be happy [about the visits]. Hopefully, the more I grow in Chicago, the more special it'll be for these kids and make memories and they'll enjoy it for a lifetime."
Sunday's walk commemorated the five-year anniversary since Rizzo was first diagnosed. While a Minor Leaguer with the Red Sox in April 2008, Rizzo was told he had limited-state classical Hodgkins Lymphoma. He still has some bad memories from his days in the hospital.
"I don't drink red Gatorade," Rizzo said. "When I got chemo, there was a red injection that went into me. That's always made me nauseous still. The first couple years I'd be really paranoid. [The cancer] was in my hips, and I'd almost try to play doctor. If something went wrong, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, what is it?' Now, it isn't even a thought in my mind."
Rizzo still gets checkups once a year, but no more CAT scans or PET scans. When he presents a check from the walk to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center -- part of the University of Miami Health System -- in January, he will have his bloodwork done. That's where he was treated. The Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital will also benefit from Rizzo's foundation.
Last August, Rizzo hosted his first Chicago event, a "Cook-Off for Cancer," where chefs did their versions of ballpark food and players served it, raising money from tips and donations. More than 400 people participated, and more than $150,000 was raised. The Rizzo Family Foundation has donated some of that money to families to help them for the holidays. It will do another "Cook-Off" in 2014.
"The money has gone to so many different places," Rizzo said. "That's why it's so great -- we're a young foundation and still growing.
"I was fortunate that the Red Sox picked up all my medical bills. No one is that fortunate, really. It costs tons of money. Some people have it, some people don't. Every case is so different. I can't give my mom and my dad and my agent enough credit. They read all the mail we get, every letter. They try to respond as much as they can. Some touch them more than others."
When Rizzo's mom, Laurie, received the letter from the Jahns, she said she cried.
"I told them," Laurie said, "they were the stars in my heart."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.