What began as a modest and tenuous endeavor, an amateur athletic club gathering to honor a Baltimore Colts football player, has turned into a charitable bonanza, a national spectacle, a working model that other cities have come to study and emulate. It's all in behalf of making a better world for abused children. Can there be a more tender and compelling cause?
It's the Ed Block Memorial Courage Award Banquet, started by a working man, a barber named Sam Lamantia, who had a dream and made it come true. The dinner at the Martin's West Ballroom will be held for the 20th time tonight, and a capacity audience of 1,700 will huddle to cheer 30 athletes -- one representative from each NFL team selected by teammates for what they believe to be exceptional degrees of courage.
Block was a trainer for the Colts, a man of profound compassion and consideration, before dying in 1983. He was brought to Baltimore in 1954 by coach Weeb Ewbank, perhaps the most important move Ewbank ever made because of the little trainer's contributions. Block made such a lasting impression that Lamantia established the annual awards to perpetuate his name.
Hall of Fame coaches Ewbank and Don Shula, the winningest NFL leader of all time, will be present. So will such Hall of Fame players as Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry; Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, plus Adm. Richard Truly, USN (ret.), an astronaut Block helped prepare for his launch. Scott Garceau will be one of the masters of ceremonies, along with Joe Knight, who has been a constant for all 20 years. Suffice it to say, this is out of the realm of just another sports gathering.
The Ed Block Memorial Courage Award Foundation has only a single paid employee, an executive secretary, Mary Jones. It has not become a bureaucracy because 56 volunteers are linked to the now-immense undertaking Lamantia champions -- an event that had its genesis in the humblest of beginnings. Baltimore's corporate community, along with numerous national sponsors, believe in the purpose and realize the enormous benefits it has delivered.
The 20 banquets, after tonight, will have accrued an astonishing $4.5 million. An amazing result. This from what started as a party put on by a sandlot football team, the Eastside A.C., of which Lamantia was a member. The funds have gone to the St. Vincent's Center, where abused youngsters of all faiths and nationalities are provided personal, psychological and medical assistance.
Officials of large corporations know the cause needs their attention and that this man from Lamantia isn't some fictional Don Quixote but a highly responsible citizen, endowed with quiet leadership and a resolve to make things better for children in trouble. When the banquet is in progress, Lamantia will not be at the head table, and he'll request not to be introduced. Instead, he'll be in the background, in a corner of the room, watching the program unfold.
The continuing success is attributable to Lamantia's diligence toward making it an enjoyable evening for the players and the audience. He wants the agenda to be fast-moving and is in obvious pain when the presenters or recipients talk long into the night. Ideally, he points for the proceedings to terminate by his own deadline of 9: 15 p.m.
"Without the NFL trainers' involvement and their interest, we would be unable to do what we do," emphasizes Lamantia. "They are responsible for the players' coming to Baltimore. That's because of what Eddie Block meant to his profession. John Lopez, who trained for the Colts, and Dean Kleinschmidt, trainer of the New Orleans Saints, were the keys to getting it established. The NFL trainers are the most honorable and intelligent group of men I ever met. I can understand why the players hold them in such high respect."
In addition to selling tickets at $75 per plate, Lamantia has succeeded in putting together a lineup of 68 sponsors, businesses that contribute anywhere from $1,500 to $20,000. He designates them platinum, $20,000 and upward; gold at $10,000, silver $5,000, bronze $3,000 and blue $1,500. The largest individual contribution in the history of the Block dinner came from Larry Rachuba, who believed so much in the cause he gave a check for $50,000 in 1988.
The platinum group that leads the list of supporters includes the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, NationsBank, American Airlines, Tremont Hotel, MIE Properties, Toshiba, WMAR-TV, MIX 105.5 and the appropriately named Colt 104.3. )) NFL Charities has allocated $10,000, the Focus Foundation of Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett is donating $21,000 and Ravens owner Art Modell went all the way to $35,000 as a gift from his team's foundation.