Emotions Flow As Buckeye Cruise Sets Sail

The 2014 Buckeye Cruise for Cancer has begun, and Buckeye Sports Bulletin editor Jeff Svoboda is on board. Check out all the happenings as the trip begins.

Day 1 of the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer began with a lot of smiles. It ended with a lot of tears.

That's life when you're hanging out in the sun and on the open water with some of the biggest names in Ohio State history – and doing it to raise money to defeat an enemy as unforgiving as cancer.

No less a man than OSU head coach Urban Meyer had trouble composing himself on the main stage after his sister, Gigi Escoe, told the story of how their mother Gisela's battle with breast cancer stretched to 13 years – much longer than doctors originally gave her as a prognosis – thanks to specialized care from Ohio State's cancer center.

And at the end of his address to the Buckeye fans who crammed into the Pacifica Ballroom on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, Meyer sounded a refrain that was similar to many on this night.

"We will defeat it," he said of the disease. "We're very humbled to be a part of this."

Then, a simple exhortation from the coach: "Go Bucks!"

The room's reply: "Beat cancer."

That's the goal of the five-day, four-night trip to Grand Cayman, the seventh iteration of what has become one of the top fundraisers for Ohio State's Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. The cruise has raised more than $3.5 million since its inception in 2008 and topped the single-year $1 million mark for the first time last year.

That number should be bested easily this year. Kroger announced a donation of more than $536,000 to the Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund – which is used to recruit the best cancer doctors in the world to Ohio State – and trip founder Lisa Cisco of Travel Partners of Dublin says to expect big things by the time the boat returns to Tampa early next week.

"We're going to crush the million dollars this weekend," she said. "We're going to crush it."

Happy Beginnings
While the day ended on some poignant notes, it began with a lot of anticipation and excitement. A flight out of Port Columbus International Airport filled with cruisegoers – not to mention two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, the director of the OSU Alumni Association – was filled with chatter and laughter despite the fact many on the trip were awake at 5 a.m., generally uncharted territory for a sportswriter like myself.

One of those passengers was Chelsea Walters of Medina, Ohio, who drew the unfortunate (one might say) assignment of sitting next to me on the flight. Still, Walters – who was awake at 5, early enough that her dog wouldn't even wake up – was ready to go as she made her first trip on the Buckeye Cruise.

"In Ohio and around Columbus, pretty much everyone has the Buckeyes, and everyone shows that mutual love," said Walters, originally a native of Pataskala just outside the capital city. "Everyone on this trip is friendly and happy."

Of course, she added, "I'm definitely excited to be out of two feet of snow."

The warming trend in Columbus was nothing compared to what it was like when travelers reached Tampa, which boasted nearly cloudless skies and temperatures close to 80.

As the 13-story luxury liner filled, a cast of around 40 former Ohio State athletes was already on board, not to mention celebrities like Meyer, Griffin and ESPN star Kirk Herbstreit. The list stretched all the way back to the 1940s All-American Cy Souders, a 93-year-old cancer survivor, and also included former basketball players Scoonie Penn and J.J. Sullinger, golfer Craigen Pappas, swimmer Susan Gottlieb and the alumni band.

As the ship finally left the port, a pep rally was held by the main pool, and another highlight of the day came just after 6 p.m. when the ship passed underneath Florida's Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Buckeye Spectacular
But the main event once festivities got under way was the Buckeye Spectacular, a nearly two-hour show introducing the sponsors and athletes while also breaking down the most popular eras in Buckeye football.

That led to a couple of the more memorable moments of the night. Right away, as the program spotlighted the Woody Hayes era, Griffin was surprised by a video featuring many of his Buckeye teammates and former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel congratulating him on his recent selection as the Rose Bowl's All-Century player.

"They caught me by surprise there," Griffin said. "You guys got me going. I can't believe you did that to me."

That was the same reaction as the program reached the 2000s and spotlighted seven-time cruise participant A.J. Hawk. The 2002-05 letter winner was the subject of a similar video honoring him for setting the Green Bay Packers' all-time tackles record, reducing the All-American linebacker to tears.

"I'm a wreck, man," he said after watching the video that ended with a message from Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

There were plenty of laughs to be had, as well, including a curtain-raising, five-minute-long dance routine of pop music through the eras that had Brutus dancing the Tootsie Roll and the Humpty Dance.

Returning back to the matter at hand, Dr. Michael Caligiuri of the OSU cancer center, which is set to open a gleaming new facility in December at a coast topping $1 billion, also detailed how the Meyer Fund has allowed Ohio State to recruit more than 300 top physicians and scientists to help fight the disease.

"They're calling us now," Caligiuri said. "That's the equivalent of them saying, ‘Coach, I want to play for you.' We're holding up our end of the bargain."

But the most inspiring moment of the night might have come from Griffin, who ended his address by reminding fans about the deep impact of their decision to be part of a larger cause by joining the Buckeye Cruise.

"This is one of my favorite events of the year because it brings together the scarlet and gray for a powerful purpose, and you all know what that is: beating cancer," he said.

"I've said this before and I will say it again: We are going to cure cancer and it's going to happen at the James at the Ohio State University."

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