There were 16 other people who received awards at the Rochester Radio-Press Club banquet last night at the Rochester Convention Center, but in many ways it was Ricky Palermo's night.
The Major Donald Holleder Award is the biggest award of the 70th Annual Day of Champions dinner but the love and appreciation for Palermo in the room was apparent, especially after a surprise presentation speech (via video) by college basketball, NBA, and basketball broadcasting legend Bill Walton.
"I stand in awe of you Rick Palermo, as fine a man as I’ve ever known," Walton said in his own baritone, effusive style. "In the game of life, Ricky, it’s not how big you are. It’s how big you play. You and Major Holleder are the truest of giants. We love you Ricky, more than words can ever tell. You’re my hero. Thank you, Ricky, for your life, which has given me mine."
Palermo was a three-sport team captain at Byron-Bergen High School. In 1981, he suffered a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident that reduced his mobility. In 1987, Palermo and his family decided to host a golf tournament to raise funds for spinal cord research. They raised more than $11,000 that first year and so decided to do it again, and again, and again. The tournament has now raised more than $1.4 million.
Emcee John Kucko said Ricky has "touched thousands of people, including some of the biggest names in sports," just before Walton, a graduate of Helix High School in East San Diego County, appeared on the four massive TV screens in the convention center.
"You are as great a champion as I’ve ever known," Walton said. "This spectacular award is a testament to your character, to your courage and to your achievements."
The Helix Highlanders won two championships with Walton as their star. UCLA won two NCAA titles with Walton at center. Walton was also on NBA championship teams in Portland and Boston.
"Ricky, your life is a shining beacon," Walton said. "It is a beacon on the horizon of life and it gives us a reason to believe that tomorrow is worth fighting for. You led this effort, Ricky, to make all aspects of our world a better place, inspiring me to try and become a tiny fraction of the person that you are. Our decades' long friendship, Ricky, has shown me the best of the human spirit and the unlimited possiblities of life."
There were other connections with Genesee County at Wednesday dinner. The dinner chairman is Batavia-native Mike Kauffman. John Grillo, a former Pavilion coach and father of Ashley John Grillo, who is the principal of Batavia Middle School, received the Charlie Wagner Award for his lifetime contributions to local sports.
Grillo retired from Holly-Kendall after 44 years of coaching. As a wrestling coach, he guided 795 dual-meet wins, 22 Genesee Region titles, and 12 sectional titles.
Kansas City Chief's quarterback Pat Mahomes was also honored at the dinner.
Nancy Palermo, Ricky's sister-in-law, getting video of Ricky's acceptance speech. Ricky said of his family, "If it wasn’t for them I know it would not have been the same thing. You don’t know what it’s like to be held on a pedestal, and it’s it not just for a couple of years. It’s been 38 years and I’m still spoiled. I’m very fortunate."