You want a fight? You picked the right guy, because I’ll throw hands with you all day long.
Anyone who has watched ESPN in the last decade has likely seen Stuart Scott, the ultra-popular on-air personality known for his quick wit and hip catchphrases. He was the perfect choice to be one of the faces of ESPN2 at its launch in 1993—the flagship station’s first spinoff, which originally targeted a younger audience with extreme sports and edgier broadcasts. Scott’s energy, charisma and ability to turn a phrase sent his career skyrocketing as he became a fixture across all ESPN mediums. Today he’s most famous for his work on SportsCenter—the franchise’s signature program—as well as for hosting NFL and NBA studio shows.
That’s how most of America knows Stuart Scott. Many here in the Triangle, however, know him as a “Carolina guy,” a 1987 graduate of UNC Chapel Hill who made his bones working the local news scene before his incredible talent went national. Those in cancer circles also know him to be a generous advocate who was active in the fight against the disease long before he was diagnosed. But when you drill down another layer to his inner circle, the close friends and family who know him best, before they start talking about his strength, courage, intelligence and determination, they all invariably begin by talking about how important family is to him.
“One of the things you will find out about Stu if you follow him is that he is one of the greatest dads in the world,” fellow ESPN personality John Saunders said at the V Foundation’s recent gala. In the four-minute video tribute to Scott that followed, celebrities including Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, NBA Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson and even President Barack Obama were among those who commented on Scott’s devotion to his children. Not surprisingly, when he took the stage, the first thing he did was acknowledge his girls, Taelor and Sydni, and explain how they were at the forefront of his latest battle with cancer.
“The biggest thing I’m fighting for is my daughters,” Scott says. “It’s not that I’m not scared. I am. I’m scared of what this thing can do, but those two little girls right there, they are my heart. And I want to walk them down the aisle one day.
“More than anything else in the world I just want to be here for my girls. And I’m fighting like hell to do that.”
In 2007, while covering a Monday Night Football game in Pittsburgh, Scott became ill and required an emergency appendectomy. During the surgery, doctors discovered the rare malignancy known as appendiceal cancer. Days later they performed another surgery to remove it, backed by six months of chemotherapy. Scott remained cancer-free until earlier this year, when a “cousin” of the appendiceal cancer returned in the form of malignant tumors on his small intestine, which likewise was treated with surgery and an ongoing chemotherapy regimen.
“When you beat cancer once, and you’re getting clean scan after clean scan …” he says. “When you get it again it’s like, ‘Oh bleep!’ and other words you can’t say on television.
“Cancer is an ugly word, but when it becomes associated with you and who you are as a person, it’s a different thing. It becomes more important, more deep, more ingrained. It becomes more intense.”
Intense is another word that often begins to come up among those who know him. His no-nonsense, no-holds-barred attitude toward the disease came out brilliantly while shooting a spot for the Stand Up to Cancer campaign, where he said “You want to fight? You picked the right guy, Cancer, because I’ll throw hands with you all day long.” And believe him when he says it.
Fierce determination for everything he does—especially battle cancer—is evidenced in the way he has faced the disease head on, forcing it to fit into his already jam-packed schedule. Often his chemo treatments are sandwiched between his P90X workouts—the extreme exercise program that challenges even the most fit individuals—and his stints under the hot television lights of his very public job.
“The first time Stu was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t even know about it for five weeks until I ran into him in the hallway,” Saunders says. “He said he went in for a little stomach problem and they found cancer. And he said, ‘John, I got this. Don’t worry about it.’ The confidence in him was just so incredible. A man who should be scared to death was just like, ‘I’m just going to move on and beat it.’ And that’s exactly what he did.
“Then it came back. And I saw Stu in the hallway again, and I was asking how he was doing and all he wanted to talk about was Twitter. I asked why he was so worried about Twitter, and he said, ‘Because I can tell the people who like me what I’m doing to fight cancer.’ So here’s a guy, not only having the courage to fight it, but willing to fight it publically so anyone can follow him.”
Scott certainly didn’t choose to be a role model in a cancer fight, but uncontrollable circumstances conspired to force the issue. He says he understands why people are so interested in his story, being a public figure and all, and consequently he handles his journey in an open, direct way.
“Most people who are public figures … that’s a perception others have of them,” he says. “Most people in the public eye don’t see themselves as a public figure—you don’t act like that stereotypical celebrity. I’m a dad. I’m a brother. I’m a son. I get mad when I have a bad day golfing just like anybody else.
“I want to show people there’s a good way to try and deal with this. A positive mental attitude goes a long way in fighting this disease, I’m convinced of that. I’m very blessed. I have a loving family, loving friends and a great job. I can’t say ‘Why me? Why did I get cancer?’ because if I say that, then I also have to ask why I got all these other blessings in life. Stuff happens, and when something bad happens, you’re kind of defined by how you respond to it.”
Born in Chicago, Scott moved to Winston-Salem in his youth and attended Reynolds High School, where he showed prowess on the gridiron, playing wide receiver and defensive back. His childhood dream was to play football at Notre Dame, but in high school it was the smaller schools that recruited him and offered scholarships for programs such as Western Carolina, Lenoir-Rhyne and Catawba College. At the urging of his brother, Scott enrolled at UNC and tried to make the team as a walk-on, but previous eye surgeries hampered his efforts.
He later took his speech communications degree and found his niche in front of the camera, conveying the stories he wrote within the confines of the limited seconds allotted by a television news broadcast. Not wanting to give up the competition and camaraderie of athletics altogether, he says he fell into sports broadcasting. And amazingly enough, he can pinpoint the exact day when he realized he had a future in the business.
“May 20, 1986,” he says. “It was the first day of my internship at Channel 11 in Durham. I went out with a photographer to Shaw University to shoot a person giving a donation. When I got back the producer told me to write a 30-second story, and I thought it was for practice. Then he had me put it in the pile, and Larry Stogner, a legend in the business, came over, picked it up, crossed out one word, and then put it in the script pile. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, Larry’s going to read that on TV.’ That’s the happiest I’ve ever been to have something of mine on television.”
Before he was discovered by ESPN, Scott began his climb through television markets as a news reporter, including a three-year stint at WRAL in Raleigh. In his time covering sports in the Triangle, at UNC and with WRAL, his life was forever touched when he got to know Jim Valvano, North Carolina State University’s charismatic basketball coach.
“He was an energetic guy and I liked what he stood for,” Scott says. “He was one Wolfpack guy that even Carolina guys loved. I liked the fact he got along with everyone. He didn’t care who you were or where you came from; if you were a good person, you were OK in his book. I appreciated and respected who he was as a person; it really had very little to do with him as a basketball coach.”
Coach Valvano famously fought metastatic bone cancer, passing away in 1993. Before his death, he set the wheels in motion to establish the V Foundation, a nonprofit organization located in Cary that today has donated more than $100 million to cancer research. Scott has been an avid supporter of the foundation since its inception, participating in all but one of its 18 celebrity golf tournaments.
“I’ve been blessed to have been a part of the V Foundation family for years,” says Scott. “I look forward to coming here every year. It’s a very genuine, family-type feel here. I appreciate what the Valvano family and the foundation have done for all of us. They provide hope, support, inspiration, fun, laughter and a really cool family atmosphere.”
You Better Recognize
This year, the trip to the Triangle to attend the celebrity golf tournament and its accompanying gala had extra special meaning for Scott, who was presented with the Spirit of Jimmy V Award. The award is not given annually, but instead only when a person shows great distinction in the efforts to find a cure for cancer, and who does so in a manner that personifies Coach Valvano’s tenacious spirit. Tenacious spirit is literally what got him to the event, as medical complications put his ability to travel into doubt, but he went ahead and made special arrangements to fly down at the last second, arriving simultaneously with Hurricane Irene.
“The V Foundation said it wanted to find somebody who embodies the spirit of Jim, and there could be no better recipient of this award than my good friend Stuart Scott,” Saunders says. “I would see that Stu would be having a treatment, and then that night he’d be doing a basketball game. Then I would read on Twitter that he’d be finishing up his P90X workout and heading over for chemo. So I would pick up the phone and yell at him, ‘Stu, what are you doing?!’ He said, ‘I’m fine. I’ve got this. Don’t worry.’”
Scott, to his credit and onlookers’ amazement, doesn’t see the continuation of his normal life as big deal.
“Cancer sucks, and the effects of chemotherapy suck, and you’re going to feel like crap sometimes,” he says. “But you’re going to feel like that whether you’re lying in bed or going to work or working out, so you might as well go out there and live your life. If you believe you’re not being touched by this, then it’s much better.
“I love my job. Those of us who do what we do, we’re blessed. Being on when you don’t feel well is not the challenge. I love writing. I love creating our shows every night. And by the time it’s time to go on, you’re charged. And when you’re going through something like this, going to work helps. Having that energy helps. Having a positive mindset helps.”
That dogged attitude, generous spirit and humble approach are the exact reasons why he was honored with the award this year, says Nick Valvano, CEO of the V Foundation and Jim’s brother. Nick says Scott embodies all his brother’s good traits and is an inspiration to all. At the gala at which the award was presented, more than $100,000 of the money raised that night was donated in Scott’s name to the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to go toward pediatric cancer research.
“I’m humbled and I’m honored,” Scott says. “It’s meant everything to be a part of this foundation. And I will continue to be. We’re all together in this. We fight as one.
“I get asked a lot ‘How can you be so positive and energetic?’ like I’m doing something special,” Scott says. “I mean, I get it. I understand people in the public eye can serve to inspire, but I feel I get far more inspired by others than I do the inspiring. But I’m not doing anything special; I’m just listening to what Coach V said 18 years ago: ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up!’”
—Story by Mike MacDonald
Category: Feature Story