Block banquet isn't your everyday sports fare

March 05, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Too many sports banquets, although admittedly inspired by good intentions, only succeed in becoming colossal bores. Guests head for the exits leaving empty tables in their wake while asking themselves why they bought tickets to a event that dragged on so long their clothes were about to go out of style.

And then there's the Ed Block Courage Awards Banquet, which takes place for the 23rd time on Tuesday night at Martin's West. The reason for its existence and the way it functions makes it an absolute winner from any standard of reference, a refreshing change from the rest.

It's a gathering that is fulfilling its endeavor of trying to make a better life for abused children. Obviously, the patrons feel the function carries a special meaning, which is why it is the most sought-after of all dinner tickets, once again an automatic sellout at $100 per place setting.

A member from each of the 31 NFL teams will be present to receive the Block Awards, which were voted by teammates to the players they deemed most courageous. Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots was so elated to be a recipient, he hurried to call his parents in Montana to inform them of the honor.

John Lopez, a former trainer of the Baltimore Colts; Ernie Accorsi, now general manager of the New York Giants, and Larry Harris, assistant sports editor of the then-Evening Sun, were on banquet director Sam Lamantia's first advisory committee. It was their collective input that named the awards and gave direction to the festivities.

Lamantia is the first to say the trainers of NFL clubs are vital to their success. Trainers are on 24-hour call to help players with the ailments that are part of football. They are, indeed, a player's best friend. And when players are asked to be in Baltimore for the banquet, they feel a certain indebtedness. No-shows are a rare occurrence.

The staggering sum of $6 million has been raised in the past 22 years for the cause of St. Vincent's Center, which does so much to help the unfortunate young of the community, those scarred by mistreatment and battered physically and emotionally.

Lamantia has worked with NFL team ownerships to establish a network of what he calls Courage Houses in 10 NFL cities. The objective is to make the idea a league-wide project, spanning the country.

The NFL has monitored the progress and, although skeptical at first, has endorsed the effort with unrestrained enthusiasm. It is aware of the value derived, is pleased with the results and the message it transmits.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation will donate $1 million to the Courage House cause if Lamantia and his volunteers can raise $2 million. It's a momentous challenge, but one Lamantia believes will be met. He's a quarter of the way to the goal.

American Airlines and US Airways bring the players in pro bono, and the Tremont Hotel makes 40 rooms available at no charge for three nights to accommodate players. This minimizes expenses and means more money is realized by the charity.

Special courage awards will be presented to Chris and Stefanie Spielman and to former Detroit Lions tackle Mike Utley, who has made an inspirational effort to overcome injuries suffered in a 1991 game.

Ex-Colt Jerry Richardson, now owner of the Carolina Panthers, will be hailed for contributions he has made to creating a Courage House in Charlotte, N.C. And at least two Hall of Fame members of the Baltimore Colts, Lenny Moore and Gino Marchetti, both former teammates of Richardson, will be present Tuesday.

What has been Lamantia's formula for lifting a banquet to such heights? He stresses that masters of ceremonies Scott Garceau and Joe Knight keep the program moving and make every minute count.

"We aren't there to make the evening seem like an eternity," Lamantia says. "Our intention is to have the program fit into a time frame that allows the night to be concluded by 9: 30 p.m. We'll do a few different things this year in production, which is being directed by Eli Eisenberg and Jonathan Mayers. They've handled everything from the visit by the pope to rock concerts."

The spirit of giving that surrounds the Block effort is contagious. Last year, Michael Wolfe gave $175,000 to the cause, and MIE Properties, through Edward St. John, donated an office suite at 809 Gleneagles Ct. in Towson, where the Block office is administered by Lamantia and only two paid employees. All other help is strictly volunteer.

The acceptance of the Block banquet is a tribute, too, to Baltimore's perception of what deserves attention and its patronage. It's not just "another sports banquet."

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