Charitable Rizzo inspires teen battling cancer
After forming bond with Cubs star, Illinois girl travels to take part in his 'Walk-Off' event
PARKLAND, Fla. -- During one of Anthony Rizzo's regular hospital visits in Chicago earlier this year to check on patients in the oncology ward, the Cubs first baseman met Adrianna Fernandes. Call her Addie; everyone does. The bubbly Lockport, Ill., teen was undergoing chemo for optic nerve glioma, a rare and inoperable cancer that had caused her to lose sight in her left eye.
When Rizzo walked into Addie's room at Lurie Children's Hospital, there was an immediate connection. She knew all about him and the Cubs and was excited to meet him.
"That response is the reason why I go," Rizzo said. "That's what this foundation is all about."
On Nov. 15, it was Addie's chance to give back as she took part in Rizzo's "Walk-Off for Cancer" in his hometown. The first 5K walk in 2012 was the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation's inaugural charity event, and it hoped to raise $30,000. They were overwhelmed when the total was $100,000 in donations. This year's walk collected $215,000 and pushed the total money raised by the Rizzo foundation to more than $1 million.
Since Rizzo's first walk, he's added a "Laugh Off for Cancer" comedy event and a "Cook Off for Cancer" fundraiser, both held in Chicago. His motivation? Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2008 while a Minor Leaguer in the Red Sox organization. He knows how difficult it was for his parents, and he focuses on helping children and their families cope with cancer.
"It's crazy coming back here just because this is my safe place," Rizzo said prior to the walk. "To see everyone come out to support this is huge. It's a beautiful city and I'm proud to be from here. This event brings a lot of people together and it's nice."
It was a busy year for Rizzo, and not just on the field with the Cubs as they clinched a postseason berth for the first time since 2008. On July 28, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation Hospitality Room on the oncology floor at Lurie Children's Hospital was unveiled. He didn't forget the patients during the postseason either. On Oct. 20, when the Cubs were battling the Mets in the National League Championship Series, Rizzo stopped by the hospital to sign autographs, pose for photos and hand out hats, teddy bears and "W" rally towels.
Just before the October visit, Lurie honored Rizzo as the 2015 winner of the Champion for Children's Award in recognition of his commitment to the health and well-being of the patients. He received the actual award during his stop, and Addie was there to celebrate with Rizzo.
Addie, who turns 14 on Sunday, had a chance to be in Italy as part of a Make-A-Wish gift. She chose Rizzo's walk instead.
"I said, 'Guess what's coming up? It's the walk,'" Addie said of a conversation she had with her mother. "I wanted to come to the walk and Make-A-Wish made it better, and we got to go to Disney [World in Orlando, Fla.] and hang out."
Addie, her mother, and one of the teen's high school teammates drove from Orlando to Parkland to attend the event at Pine Trails Park.
"He puts a smile on her face," Addie's mother Lisa Morello said of Rizzo. "For us, it's like being with family."
When she was in Florida, Addie was taking a break from the chemo. The treatments are designed to shrink the tumor that's causing the problem with her eyesight. However, the chemo also makes Addie sick. If you met her, you'd never know the severity of the illness that she's dealing with. When she can, she plays softball, volleyball and basketball.
"She's always the happiest kid," Morello said.
The walk was the sixth time Rizzo and Addie got together, and for the sixth time, the first baseman gave her a huge hug. She disappears when he wraps his arms around her.
What did Rizzo learn from his battle with cancer? To never take anything for granted. Addie seems to have the same attitude. That's something to give thanks for at this time of the year.
"I wanted to come here because I wanted to give back to Anthony," Addie said. "I've met him so many times and he's done so much for me and my family, so I wanted to give back and walk this walk."
And she did.