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Opining on Dick Vitale’s courage, more Bills nicknames, stadium names

By the time he finished delivering a motivational speech that would have made Knute Rockne proud, Dick Vitale looked like he’d been through two rinse cycles. He was bathed in sweat. As he wiped perspiration from his brow, the 1,000 people who had gathered at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center in the fall of 1997 for that Compeer Sports Luncheon were on their feet, applauding.

For nearly 45 minutes, ESPN’s voice of college basketball had made people laugh and cry and inspired them to do good. It was the third time I had chronicled Vitale in action. On those occasions, as well as the scores of times I’ve interviewed him through the years, Vitale always delivered. And that’s why I’ll be tuning in to the ESPYS on July 20 when he receives the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, named after his late friend, Jim Valvano. To quote one of Dickie V’s pet phrases, “It’s going to be awesome, baby, with a capital “A.”

I know the over-caffeinated announcer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Friends tell me they either mute the television or switch channels the instant they learn he is doing color commentary. I get how some find him annoying and have grown tired of his schtick. But I’ve always admired the guy. And from many dealings with him, I can tell you that you won’t find a more genuine, caring person. The guy’s got a heart as big as the Carrier Dome.

The 82-year-old has endured a rough year, with multiple surgeries and chemotherapy after being diagnosed with melanoma and lymphoma. The cancer wound up silencing him for a while, forcing him to miss most of the basketball season, but it didn’t stop him from raising research dollars and inspiring others facing similar challenges. Happily, he announced last month that he was “cancer-free.”

Thirty years ago, Vitale stood on stage at the ESPYS as Valvano gave a speech that conjured memories of Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” oratory. Like Gehrig, Valvano knew he was dying, but he used his talk to make people laugh and cry and brought the audience to its feet with his rallying words of “don’t ever give up.”

Two months later, Valvano was dead, and Vitale’s calling in life changed. He would use his celebrity to raise as much money as possible for the Jimmy V. Foundation. Vitale held his 17th annual fundraising gala last week. More than $11 million was raised, upping to $55 million the amount of money Vitale’s gala has donated for pediatric cancer research.

I hope fans and critics alike will watch his speech in two months. I think it might wind up being his most memorable – awesome with a capital “A.”

***

Last week’s light-hearted column about catchy Buffalo Bills nicknames generated some fun responses. Reader Carl Silvio reminded me of an all-time favorite I omitted: Bill “Earthquake” Enyart. The moniker was given to Enyart by a clever sports information director at Oregon State University, and it seemed apropos because Enyart was a punishing 6-foot-4, 230-pound fullback who sent tremors through defenses each time he carried the football. Although the sobriquet soon caught on with fans and sportswriters, Enyart preferred the one his OSU teammates had come up with. They called him “Buff” or “Buffalo Bill” because they thought he stampeded through lines like a raging buffalo.

Following an All-American college career that once saw him lug the ball a mind-numbing 50 times for 299 yards in a single game, Enyart became a “Buffalo Bill” for real when the team selected him early in the second round of the 1969 NFL draft. The Bills had designs on him doing more blocking than running because they had used the draft’s No. 1 overall pick that spring on O.J. Simpson.

This “Earthquake” barely registered on the Richter Scale and stat sheet during his two seasons with the team. Playing in all 28 games, but starting only nine times, Enyart carried the ball 105 times for 387 yards (a 3.7 average) and one touchdown but proved to be a reliable receiver with 54 receptions for 421 yards and three scores. Following the 1970 season, he was traded to Oakland, but a career-ending knee injury limited him to one game with the Raiders.

Reader John Boutet jogged my memory with a nickname from the Bills AFL championship teams of the mid-1960s. I had mentioned how All-Star running back and league MVP Carlton Chester Gilchrest was known as “Cookie.” Boutet, an archivist and historian for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, reminded me that an offensive line, led by Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw, was called the “Dough Boys.” Get it? Cookie. Dough. So, years before the Electric Company O-line, paced by Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, was turning loose the Juice (O.J. Simpson), a bunch of “Dough Boy” blockers did the same for Cookie. And come to think of it, at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Gilchrest was more Earthquake than Cookie, but Enyart had alliteration working in his favor.

In the column, I suggested Bills fans needed to come up with a better nickname for super-duper quarterback Josh Allen than the ones that had been proposed. Reader David Lewis offered, “The Grim Leaper,” a play on Allen’s “Grim Reaper” moniker and his remarkable ability to hurdle would-be tacklers.

***

It’s been a while since both the Rochester Red Wings and Americans have been this good at the same time. With the first place Wings off to their best start in 15 years and the Amerks advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005, it’s been a fun spring so far. Both still have a long, long way to go, but wouldn’t it be cool to see baseball’s Wings win their first Governors’ Cup since 1997 and hockey’s Amerks win their first Calder Cup since 1996? Still hard to fathom it’s been a quarter-century since that hardware’s been hoisted in the Flower City.

***

Syracuse University has legally extricated itself from its stadium naming rights agreement with Carrier Corporation, but the school has yet to officially announce its new deal with JMA Wireless, as reported a few weeks back by Sportico. The original deal with Carrier for a total of $2.75 million was signed in 1979 and was supposed to last into perpetuity (a fancy way of saying “forever.”) Sportico reported that the JMA deal will pay around $3.25 million annually.

While in limbo, SU has been referring to its arena as “The Stadium,” “Loudhouse,” and the “Dome.” The name “JMA Wireless Dome” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. My sense is that Orange fans will continue to call the place the “Carrier Dome,” or “The Dome.”

JMA Wireless is a Syracuse-based company that has installed the 5G infrastructure in several major arenas, including SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, host of February’s Super Bowl. It’s assumed that JMA’s presence in SU’s 42-year-old stadium will result in much improved wi-fi reception. Here’s hoping that’s the case. Otherwise, fans will be griping about it in a manner similar to the way they grumbled about how they were sweating bullets in a place once named for the world’s largest manufacturer of air conditioners.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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