Behind the remarkable achievements of an annual banquet that so far has raised $2,470,000 for the benefit of abused children is an extraordinary citizen named Sam Lamantia, who deserves the highest respect and applause any city or state could possibly offer. He has made it happen without high-powered committees and despite the skeptics who insisted his dreams were beyond reality.
But again tonight the 16th annual Ed Block Courage Awards Dinner at Martin's West is a sellout. A player from each of the NFL's 28 teams will be honored for individual perseverance in overcoming physical setbacks.
The late Ed Block was a trainer of the Baltimore Colts for 23 years and epitomized a spirit of doing for others.
Three Hall of Fame members -- Doak Walker of SMU and the Detroit Lions, Paul Hornung of Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers, Tony Dorsett of Pitt and the Dallas Cowboys, all Heisman Trophy winners -- will be introduced by Pete Elliott, himself a former Michigan All-America and newly voted to the College Football Hall of Fame. Elliott is celebrating his 15th year as director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The banquet has come to be regarded as one of the best in the country, thanks to the direction of Lamantia, a humble man who was born in the coal mining/farming community of Bishop, Va., as the youngest of 11 children of parents who immigrated from Sicily.
Some of his sisters and brothers came to Baltimore during World War II to work and soon the rest of the family joined them. Sam went on to play sandlot and high school football for Bradford A.C., Eastside A.C., and Calvert Hall. He later learned to cut and style hair and opened a shop.
This isn't the kind of a background that would normally be expected of a man of Lamantia's diversified abilities, but what he continues to produce attracts leaders in the Baltimore business community to offer their endorsement and support.
Lamantia insists banquet speakers be monitored as to time. Because of his respect for the audience, he does not want the program to run later than 9:30 p.m.
"The effort is so exceptional it sounds like make-believe," says Dick Szymanski, former player, scout and general manager of the Colts. "It's a major-league event. It's remarkable he does all this work with only one paid employee. I was with the Ed Block Banquet when it was put on by the Eastside A.C., and there was a chance it would be dropped. Lamantia took it on and has given it status."
The NFL, aware of its humane value, gives the effort its approval and cooperation. The Pro Football Athletic Training Staffs, wanting to recognize Block's contributions in the past, have been involved since almost the outset, initially through the urging of trainer John Lopez, which explains why all the NFL clubs participate.
"We started off paying tribute to a Baltimore Colt player, but when the team left it was decided to honor a member of each NFL club," Sam said. "There were detractors, but when they saw what we had in mind the idea was accepted."
Lamantia is devoted to the cause of assisting abused children with the focal point of his interest the St. Vincent's Center. But now the idea is going national. A center, called a "Courage House", where abused children are protected and directed in a home environment, has been established to perpetuate the names of Commissioner Pete Rozelle here at St. Vincent's, Steelers' owner Art Rooney in Pittsburgh, Bears' owner Ed McCaskey in Chicago and Dolphins' owner Joe Robbie in Miami. The next center will be sponsored by the Detroit Lions.
American Airlines transports the guests and the Tremont Hotel provides accommodations. Both organizations are involved on a gratis basis because they believe in the cause. Mars Super Markets, Tuxedo House, Kirk Stieff Co. and Maryland National Bank have, like American Airlines and the Tremont, been associated with the project more than 10 years.
"The business community of Baltimore never says no to us," Lamantia said. "Our volunteers make us click. Charity funds come from dinner tickets [$75], program advertising, individual donations and corporate sponsors. A man like Frank Culotta, a businessman who I played football with at Calvert Hall under coach George Young, is constantly creating new sources of income for us. It's this kind of help that has taken us this far."
Another positive thing about Lamantia: He refuses to be at a head table and will not allow the master of ceremonies to introduce him. His cause is assisting abused children, not dealing in self-aggrandizement.