Already a veteran of five pro seasons and three months in the big leagues, Jon Lester wasn't a kid in age when doctors told him he had cancer at 22 years old. But he was a kid in attitude.
"I feel like kids don't have the 'why me?'" said the Red Sox lefty. "They're so naive to the process and what's going on. It's more kind of the hand that they're dealt, and they go about it as best they can every day.
"That's what I like about dealing with kids; they kind of have the same attitude as I did, as far as, 'What's my next obstacle -- and what do I need to do to try and beat it?'"
In November it'll be seven years since Lester was told he'd beaten non-Hodgkins Lymphoma -- but he vows that he'll never forget that period of 2006, and he'll never quit fighting the battle alongside those young people, in particular, who continue to wage war with cancer.
That's why he and his wife teamed with the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation to create the NVRQT Foundation -- that's hashtag-speak for "Never Quit" -- and why the Lesters invited his teammates along with a variety of local and national notables to the House of Blues on Monday night to raise money for the cause. It was the second annual NVRQT Night, and like the first it featured a game of "3 Up 3 Down," which was a Hollywood Squares-style competition where the Lesters were the contestants and celebrities manned the squares.
Across the top row of the grid sat Bruins winger Shawn Thornton between "Chelsea Lately" comedians Sarah Colonna and Josh Wolf. In the middle row went Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster, funnyman Lenny Clarke, and Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The bottom row featured NESN's Leah Hextall, Sox pitcher John Lackey, and Boston Marathon bombing heroes Jeff Bauman and Carlos Arredondo.
Jake Peavy, Clay Buccholz and Felix Doubront were also on hand as spectators, meaning the entire starting rotation came out in support, as did manager John Farrell and several other teammates, including reliever Craig Breslow. He started the Strike 3 Foundation with a mission similar to NVRQT, and since being traded to Boston last summer he and Lester have spoken of their common goals and about how to collaborate in achieving them.
"Jon and I have spent a lot of time discussing this cause, why it's meaningful, and the things that we can do to help each other. One of those things is to come out and support his event," Breslow said. "He's an incredibly personable and approachable guy to begin with, and I think whenever someone comes by with a connection to pediatric cancer like he has, and he understands the unique position he's in to be able to relate to these kids and kind of shed some comfort for these kids because he's been through all this."
Others on the red carpet included Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, MBTA Police Officer Dic Donohue, New Hampshire Motor Speedway Executive VP Jerry Gappens, ex-Patriot Jermaine Wiggins, Sox teammates David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, and injured Sox reliever Andrew Miller -- who rolled in with one leg propped on a scooter. There were also a variety of intriguing auction items that fetched donations, including a helmet and jersey signed by Rob Gronkowski, a guitar signed by the Zac Brown Band, and an autographed Boston Strong 617 Red Sox jersey. Afterward the party continued down Lansdowne Street at Game On, where Peavy played guitar with Dalton and the Sheriffs before country star David Nail performed.
But Lester was most excited to talk about the kids who brought them all together. With the help of the PCRF, the southpaw has had the opportunity to meet and greet young cancer patients at parks all around baseball, and bring them around his team prior to the game. Last week he met with kids in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, and recently he says he's done the same in Tampa Bay, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Seattle, and a couple times in New York. Each time the experience is geared toward giving the child a chance to have some fun for a while.
"Obviously, anytime you're dealing with kids it pulls at your heart a little bit," Lester said. "I got to meet a kid out in LA this last trip, named Zein, and it really hit home with me. Just to see them smile, and have a good time at a baseball game, and get their minds off treatment and being in isolation for six weeks -- it's just little things that we can do for these kids to put a smile on their face.
"When I went through my treatment, that was something that was very important to me: trying to have as normal days as I could, away from thinking about treatment, away from thinking about being sick. Just being able to do that for that family is rewarding."
Lester said he's "got to met a lot of great kids along the way," and though his event was originally scheduled for late July, the new date probably couldn't have worked out much better. With WEEI's and NESN's Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon taking place Tuesday and Wednesday, and August having been declared Jimmy Fund Month by the Red Sox, NVRQT Night effectively became the event that got everything kicked off.
"The Red Sox Foundation and the Red Sox organization as a whole understand their unique role in the community, how visible they are and the unique impact they can have when it comes to fundraising, obviously," Breslow said. "The Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund partnership goes hand in hand, and it's probably perfectly fitting that although the event wasn't scheduled for right now originally, that it comes during this month is appropriate."
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