Sittler: Terry Fox 'an inspiration'

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:06 AM ET

In his long public-appearance career, Darryl Sittler has encountered many fans who get tongue-tied in his presence.

But as he rode the elevator of the Four Seasons Hotel 30 summers ago, he wondered what on earth he'd say to a remarkable young man from British Columbia who was passing through Toronto and had asked to meet the famous Maple Leafs captain. But the perfect line popped into Sittler's head.

"He had no idea I was coming, so I just poked my head in his room and said: 'Who wants to go for a run?', " Sittler recalled. "I wanted to meet him as much as he wanted to meet me. He was sitting on the end of the bed and his eyes really lit up.

"I had worn a T-shirt and pair of shorts, so away we went. Someone just e-mailed me an old picture of us before we started and we're standing there with our curly hair."

Terry Fox had already come about 3,500 kilometres on one artificial leg from St. John's, Nfld., and covered 21 clicks that July 11 morning. But those few blocks he and Sittler ran from the hotel down University Ave., past crowds 10-deep, into a jammed Nathan Phillips Square, became one of the defining moments of Fox's Marathon of Hope.

From near anonymity in April when Fox first dipped his foot in the cold Atlantic, surviving spring storms and a few rude drivers in the Maritimes and Quebec who crowded Fox and his supporters' van off the one-lane highways, this was the hero's welcome he deserved. And Sittler, the town's biggest sports star of the time for his 10-point game and winning Canada Cup goal, knew he wasn't the big story that day, nor this Sunday in Don Mills when he's part of the many 30th anniversary Terry Fox Runs across the world.

"I just let Terry take the lead that day," Sittler said. "What happened next was the most moving events I ever saw."

Fox came down the middle of the road, wearing his famous map of Canada tee and that intense grimace. To the left and right, brother Darrel and good friend Doug Alward helped the many Cancer Society volunteers fill plastic buckets with bills, the old green singles, salmon-coloured twos and blue five.

In the hospitals and office buildings on University, workers pressed to the windows to watch the police clear the way for Fox, followed by Sittler and other special guest runners.

When they turned into City Hall more than 10,000 had gathered, much to the shock of Fox and Sittler.

"People I saw who had cancer set an example," Fox told the crowd. "I've got to be strong, I can't give up."

Fox had lost his right leg below the knee in 1977 and on the eve of his surgery read about amputee Dick Traum's completion of the New York Marathon. That story and his frustration at lack of research funding bloomed into the Marathon of Hope, an audacious-sounding plan to run across the country on one good leg to raise $1 million.

"I caught the first article about him starting at the ocean," Sittler said. "I thought Holy Moses, this guy has got guts and courage. I trained, but to run 26 miles every day on one leg with the disease that took his other leg? Little did I know how far he'd get."

Bill Vigars, who juggled Terry's appearances for the Cancer Society in Ontario, had called Sittler and told him he was on the short list of VIPs Fox wanted to meet, along with Bobby Orr and Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau.

As he left his house for Fox's hotel, Sittler remembered he hadn't brought a gift. He took one of his most prized souvenirs from a recent NHL all-star game, his No. 27 orange and black sweater, and put in a paper bag.

"I didn't play in many of those, so it was special to me," Sittler said. "(But) I'm thinking, what can I do as a Canadian to show my appreciation for what he's done?"

Sittler surprised Fox with a trade of shirts as the City Hall ceremony began. The beaming Fox wore it during the speech.

"I guess it was special to him, too," Sittler said. "It's now in his museum."

Their relationship did not end that day. When cancer returned to ravage Fox less than two months later, ending his quest at 5,373 km, just outside of Thunder Bay, Sittler lent his celebrity to the spontaneous CTV Telethon that raised $10.5 million. And when the Leafs played in Vancouver that following season, Fox was Sittler's guest in the Leafs' dressing room.

Fox died on June 28, 1981 and the first of commemorative runs in his name were organized three months later, following his wish that they be non-competitive and that any mode of motion was acceptable. Now a mid-September tradition, the events have raised $500 million and Sittler has always been involved in some way.

When Darryl's wife Wendy died of colon cancer in 2001, he became a spokesman to urge the public to get early colon screening, efforts that continue to this day.

"Not a day goes by that I don't look at the painting Ken Danby did and Terry signed for me," Sittler said. "I think of what an inspiration he was to us."


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