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Emma: Anthony Rizzo’s Indelible Impact

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. (Getty Images)

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. (Getty Images)

Chris Emma mug Chris Emma
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com,...
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By Chris Emma-

(CBS) It was a Tuesday morning last June, and Anthony Rizzo was nowhere to be found.

Marc Pollack, his agent, was in Chicago to visit with the client he’s known the longest. They were to meet for breakfast near Wrigley Field, but Rizzo was late. Pollack had called Rizzo’s phone, but there was no response.

Waiting and waiting, Pollack finally received a call from Rizzo. Where was the Cubs’ star first baseman? Rizzo was visiting children battling cancer at the Lurie Children’s Hospital.

The hospital visits are Rizzo’s routine during the Cubs’ homestands. He’s a regular visitor. There are no cameras or reporters allowed to accompany him. Just the 24-year-old and kids in need of a smile.

For the hours Rizzo spends at the hospital, he’s not a ballplayer and the kids aren’t cancer patients. They’re friends having fun.

“It’s awesome to see their smiles,” Rizzo said.

Many of the children Rizzo visits don’t realize the star slugger once battled cancer, too. As a promising prospect with the Boston Red Sox, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.

Rizzo swiftly defeated the disease, but he never forgot the battle. It’s what inspires him to give back.

“We’re so grateful that Anthony is a survivor,” Anthony’s mother, Laurie, said. “That’s the reason we wanted to do this. To be able to help people, with Anthony being the first baseman for the Cubs, he can give hope to people battling this terrible disease.”

Most know Anthony Rizzo as the home run-hitting first baseman for the Cubs, a cornerstone of the team’s future. But for children fighting for their lives, he’s a close companion.

The fight

Rizzo had everything an 18-year-old could ask for. He had just been drafted by the Red Sox, signed a hefty contract and was about to embark on his dream.

Playing in Class-A Greenville, Rizzo was soon hitting the cover off the ball. His average was .360 in the month of April, and he was off to a promising start to the 2008 season. But everything wasn’t right. His legs had swollen, and he had gained 15 pounds. Rizzo considered hiding it with his season off to such a strong start, but he approached the team doctors.

From there, the Red Sox sent him to Boston General Hospital and the diagnosis came in. It was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I’m 18 — I had no idea what cancer was,” Rizzo said. “I thought chemotherapy was a type of cancer; I didn’t know it was a treatment.”

The diagnosis was encouraging. Doctors told Rizzo that he would beat the disease with steady treatment. He was about to endure chemotherapy.

Rizzo was derailed from a baseball career to battle a horrific disease, but he remained the same strong, positive person.

“You would’ve never known (he had cancer) at the time,” said Pollack, the agent and longtime family friend. “The attitude he had as he was fighting chemo and cancer, you would’ve never known it. I remember back then, he continued with the same smile he has today.”

Added Laurie: “He was more worried about everybody else, and he didn’t want the focus on him. He stayed really strong through it.”

The inspiration for Rizzo to form a foundation came as he was fighting the disease. There was no doubt in his mind that he would be free of cancer, but he couldn’t forget the lessons learned. Life is precious and short.

While fighting the disease, Rizzo was stoic. He stood confident that he could beat it and refused to be negative. He made it clear to family friends: He didn’t want sympathy.

“My parents were more worried than I was — my brothers and my friends,” Rizzo said. “Everyone else was a little more worried than I was. Seeing them stress about it was kind of tough on me.”

The worries for the family grew when Rizzo’s grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer as he battled his Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was a difficult, daunting time. In November of 2010, Rizzo received the news that his cancer had entered remission. He was free of the disease. Days later, his grandmother passed away.

Inspired to make a difference, Rizzo was ready to work.

Giving back

Determination is what has driven Rizzo. It led him past cancer and into the major leagues.

“Anthony is pretty strong-minded,” Laurie said. “He always was, even as a little kid. Anything he tried to do, he’d go at it. That’s just Anthony’s personality.”

Rizzo knows how fortunate he was. He was able to beat cancer and live his dream. Ever grateful, it was time to pay it forward.

Still working through the minor leagues and barely 19 years old, Rizzo began his charity work. It started with a breast cancer walk to honor his late grandmother. The hope was for hundreds to show up in his hometown of Parkland, Fla. Instead, thousands joined.

The groundwork for the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation began with this.

Now, Rizzo is a polished 24-year-old with the Cubs. He’s the face of the team’s rebuilding process and a rising star in the Windy City. He’s on pace for an All-Star season. And he’s an advocate for charity.

“He’s a very caring and giving person,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “A very nice personality, very outgoing. He’s been through a lot, and he has a big heart. He wants to give back to the community any way he can.”

Added Cubs teammate Starlin Castro: “I can’t say anything bad about him. He’s great. A great teammate and great person.”

The foundation Rizzo dreamed of starting has found its home in Chicago. It hosts the annual Cookoff for Cancer event — held next Friday, May 16 — and the Walkoff for Cancer, moving forward with the event which honored his grandmother years before.

As Rizzo’s profile has grown, the foundation has received more publicity. Still, it remains the same in cause. It’s a family affair.

Laurie is the president of her son’s charity. Pollack shares in the day-to-day administration. Rizzo’s father, John, his brother, Johnny, and his wife, Sarah, help run everything else. There are no hired hands in the operation.

“It’s such a great feeling to give back to so many people,” Pollack said.

Every phone call, email and autograph request that comes in, Laurie or Marc handles it. Any way they can help make a difference, they gladly do in the foundation’s name. Laurie is constantly reaching out to families dealing with cancer and offering her help.

When Rizzo was receiving cancer treatment, he had top-notch doctors and the support of a powerful major league organization. Laurie wants to lend the kind of support her son received to those in need of it.

“I was wondering what people were doing when they didn’t have that kind of help,” Laurie said. “That was the thought with the foundation. It’s not just for cancer research, it’s about helping families.”

Planning for each event is time consuming for the family, but it’s a passion shared by all. It’s a busy job that’s done for free.

Anthony is as involved as time allows during the long baseball season.  The charity isn’t just something to attach his name with. It’s his passion.

“He cares about other people more than himself,” Cubs teammate Mike Olt said. “He definitely wants to help the community out, which is huge for him. He’s not doing it because he has to; he’s doing it because he wants to.”

Added Pollack, “It’s just his nature.”

Rizzo’s impact goes beyond the charity work. His visits at the Lurie Children’s Hospital come from the kindness of his heart. It wasn’t long ago that Rizzo was a cancer patient, not a budding star first baseman.

“During the season, (the hospital visits) bring you back down to earth a little bit,” Rizzo said. “It brings you back to reality.”

It’s not something Rizzo does for publicity. He doesn’t tell friends and teammates about when he’s visiting. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who has been with Rizzo in Boston, San Diego and Chicago, first learned of the hospital visits from his wife, who also volunteers at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

“He stays for every kid, and nobody knows about it,” Hoyer said. “He’s really committed to helping kids with pediatric cancer.”

Rizzo is a cancer survivor, a baseball player and a difference-maker.

“It’s just all part of who he is,” his mother said. “It’s the card he was dealt. This is what it is, this was his life.”

The cornerstone

The first time Hoyer met Rizzo, the then-Red Sox executive knew there was something special.

Through unique circumstances, Hoyer has been with Rizzo in three stops. He was part of the front office that drafted Rizzo, then oversaw two blockbuster trades to acquire the first baseman.

An important aspect of Hoyer’s philosophy in scouting is to identify the characteristics in a prospect’s personality. Everything he saw of Rizzo in the beginning holds true today.

“Great character guy, really wants to win, really hard worker,” Hoyer said. “I’ve never seen anything different. He’s a guy that really wants to be a great player. To be a great player, you’ve got to put in the work to do it. He’s always shown a willingness to do that.”

Pure talent aside, Hoyer felt Rizzo has the mental makeup and personality to be the Cubs’ cornerstone of their rebuilding process.

“We’re trying to build an organization here, and he’s the kind of character person you want to build around,” Hoyer said.

Rizzo is a humble, kind person whose past made him what he is today. Cancer changed his life.

In the Cubs’ clubhouse, Rizzo’s personality is palpable. He’s well respected and considered a leader in the team’s movement toward better days. But what makes Rizzo special is his prowess on the field and in the community. The latter of which is something that stands out equally.

“He’s a quality individual,” Renteria said. “He’s got a big heart. He’s just an outstanding human being.”

In the name of his family, his team and his past, Anthony Rizzo is living life to the fullest. He triumphed past cancer, reached the major leagues and is fulfilling his dreams: playing baseball and giving back.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisEmmaScout.

For more information on the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation or to purchase tickets or donate for the Cookoff for Cancer, visit rizzo44.com.