- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

The big names came, and the big money came, so it was hardly surprising everyone had a great time helping raise more than $400,000 to fight leukemia and lymphoma at the Bobby Mitchell Washington Auto Dealers Hall of Fame Classic Saturday night at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va.

The event has raised more than $3 million since its inception, jumping from a mere $30,000 12 years ago into the big leagues today.

"When Bobby started I don't think he imagined it would ever be like this," said former Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, nursing an unlit cigar as he sat in the ballroom waiting for the banquet to begin.

"This is one of those tournaments where you know you're going to have fun," he said. "It's gotten better every year."

Mr. Mitchell, the assistant general manager of the Redskins, started the benefit in honor of Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, who was supposed to enter the National Football League at the same time as Mr. Mitchell but was diagnosed with leukemia and never played a down of professional football. Mr. Davis died May 18, 1963, at age 23.

Area businessmen paid $2,500 per table to attend the silent auction and dine with 40 hall of famers at what Leukemia Society Senior Executive Director David Timko called the largest annual gathering of all-star sports heroes bigger even than the hall of fame's annual induction ceremony.

Formidable National Basketball Association legend Bill Russell was the first to greet the well-dressed guests as they walked down red-carpeted stairs into the ballroom.

Though Mr. Russell didn't say much, other legends, such as "the Big O" (Milwaukee Bucks great Oscar Robertson), Pittsburgh Steeler Mel Blount and Oakland Raiders former player and coach Art Shell mixed easily with the crowd.

The weekend is an eagerly awaited opportunity for the former players to get together and reminisce on Friday and much of Saturday before getting down to the business of raising money at the Saturday dinner and Sunday golf tournament. (The tournament was canceled this year because of inclement weather.)

"Last night was fraternity night," Mr. Mitchell said. "The players have a heck of a time. If you were up on that ninth floor, you wouldn't have gotten any sleep."

"Tonight it shifts to leukemia," he said.

Each hall of famer was introduced with a brief video biography, then master of ceremonies Paul Berry shouted out the player's name or nickname several times as each entered under a spotlight, escorted by one of the three children present who have been diagnosed with leukemia.

Former Redskins wide receiver Charley Taylor had trouble keeping up with 8-year-old Craig Kochel and muttered in surprise to himself, "That little boy was running" as he made his way to his seat.

John Mackey, the former Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers tight end, sported a bright blue jacket and black cowboy hat and had no trouble keeping up with little Craig

In fact, Mr. Mackey left Craig behind, charging into the ballroom and yelling as if he were about to strap on pads right there and then.

Sam Huff, Kenny Houston, Mr. Jurgensen and Mr. Taylor all former Redskin greats got the warmest ovations, although the biggest was reserved for the most touching moment of the night.

Nate Tobler, 17, of Loudoun County was introduced by a video that told the story of his battle with Hodgkin's disease and his fight to return to competitive sports. Nate has played football, basketball, soccer and baseball, has swum competitively and run cross-country.

When he walked onstage to thank God and the crowd, every person in the room rose to give him a rousing welcome.

"That's why we're here," Mr. Berry said.

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