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Valentines for Liam: Our hearts go out to 3-year-old cancer victim

2/7/2008 - NASCAR

I get paid to analyze the minute details of a speedy institution that inspires millions of people to dream, that injects joy and pain and completely irrational behavior into many lives on a daily basis. NASCAR is more than a sport. It's a culture. And its fans, like most sports fans, yearn for every last morsel of insight, presented in an honest, no-frills fashion.

That is my responsibility.

And my blessing.

I do, though, get a bit too caught up in the industry soap opera at times, and in turn invest too much emotion into things that are, in the grand scheme of life, largely frivolous. I think a lot of my colleagues are that way. It's part of the passion. We worry a lot about driver feuds and silly seasons and debris cautions. We talk about it incessantly over dinners and beers. We should be talking about our families or our rec-league softball ineptitude.

I think about that a lot each week while pouring words into this tiny fissure of cyberspace.

As a new season dawns I think about my colleague Bob Margolis from Yahoo! Sports, whose indomitable spirit in the quest to defeat cancer greatly inspires all in his midst. His Christmas Eve column, "A Survivor's Story," is a must-read account of his trek through hell. I think about Ray Cooper, too, the beloved former Dodge Motorsports media representative who lost his cancer fight last year.

I think about my buddy Brian Harmon back home in Virginia. He's a Tony Stewart fanatic and as gracious a human as you'll meet. Cancer took his 4-year-old son, Chance, last summer. Chance was a big-time Stewart fan, too. I wanted terribly to help them but never went for it. I picked up the phone a few times, only to hang up before connecting. I didn't know how to approach it. I doubt I'll ever forgive myself for that.

And, like always, I think about my mom. May 24 will mark 10 years since breast cancer took her from my family and me. I hate it, and I doubt I'll ever have the courage to forgive it.

So this weekend when my friend, Julie Yenichek, asked for my help on behalf of her good friend Gretchen Witt, there was no hesitation. When you can help, you should -- especially when kids are involved.

Gretchen's son, Liam, is a pediatric cancer patient, diagnosed last year with stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare cancer of the nervous system. He is 3 years old. My son is 2. Reality check.

It struck me seeing photos of young Liam with a tube hanging out of his chest, put there to administer potent medication into his fragile little body, and knowing that he's endured more than 11 hours of surgery, 14 radiation sessions, five rounds of chemotherapy and countless injections. I'm not that brave.

And you're worried about your receding hairline and your patchy lawn.

Gretchen is relentless. To steal some racing jargon, she lives in qualifying trim. For an entire year her internal throttle has been mashed to the floorboard. She helped found a nonprofit organization, Band of Parents, which in conjunction with Sloan Kettering Cancer Center seeks to increase awareness about neuroblastoma -- and to raise funds with which to fight it.

It's no cakewalk. So Gretchen tried cookies.

She baked -- and sold -- 96,000 of them to raise money. She appeared on CNN and Good Morning America to tell the world about it. She won't rest until a cure is found. But she is tiring. She could use some help.

"You do what you have to do," Gretchen said. "[Larry and I] get our strength from our son. We can get pissed off and angry, or we can say, 'OK, this is a sucky situation, but let's figure out what we can do to make a change.'

"I'm only one person, but every time somebody new comes into the fold they want to do something to help. There's no reason why we should have sold 96,000 cookies in a couple of weeks. But people wanted to get involved. They just want to know what to do to help."

That's where we come in.

To honor Liam, Julie developed a campaign -- Valentines for HOPE: Fight Cancer; Set a Record -- to help Liam set the Guinness World Record for most valentines received by one person. It's not a record of record, so to speak. Yet. That's the goal.

NASCAR fans are among the most loyal in sports. They say there are 75 million of us, and I figure every one of us has at least one close buddy who doesn't follow the sport so closely. By my count that's 150 million valentines. Tell your buddy. Make it happen.

After all, Liam's dad, Larry, comes from a racing family. Asked the type of machines they race, Gretchen hesitated ...

"Umm ... cars?"

Classic. Come to find out, Larry tells me his dad and aunt race Modifieds every weekend at Kalamazoo Speedway in Michigan. Awesome.

With little effort, we could do something quite special for Liam, and for neuroblastoma patients in general. He deserves that.

We sports fans easily lose focus on what heroism is. We tritely rave about Plaxico Burress' Super Bowl "heroics" while playing with an injured ankle, or Eli Manning's "heroics" in silencing his critics or Jimmie Johnson's late-race "heroics" at Texas in passing Matt Kenseth to run away with the Cup. I'm as guilty as anyone.

Those are impressive accomplishments, indeed, and on the grandest stage, no less. They are to be commended.

But heroic? Naw. Not compared to an innocent kid who wakes to face a needle every day of his life.

"We hate cancer," Gretchen said. "But we've been given a gift. It's really easy for us to put things in perspective these days. Sure, we could have done without something threatening our child to be reminded of that lesson. There have been 12 kids since July who have lost their battles.

"This is a disease that primarily affects toddlers. Just when your child is blossoming, this thing comes in and tries to rob them. Cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S. That's dumbfounding. Who knew more kids die of cancer than [multiple sclerosis], [muscular dystrophy], asthma and AIDS combined? When you hear those kinds of things, you say 'Hey, this is ridiculous, and it must stop.'"

So pull out the scissors and the crayons and the construction paper and the glue stick and send Liam a note. It's like the MasterCard commercials: It'll cost you 50 cents, but it's a priceless gesture.

Customize them. If you're a Stewart fan, like Brian, tell Liam so with an orange, Stewart-themed No. 20 valentine. If you're a charter member of Junior Nation, profess your faith by way of a green 88 heart. Kasey Kahne fan? Go with a red 9. You get the idea.

You get to spend precious time with your children, and Liam leaps into the record book.

And everybody wins.

Send Liam's valentines to P.O. Box 2701, Cornelius, N.C. 28031. Donations should be written to Band of Parents and sent to the same address.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.