COLUMBUS -- Bill Zito called his wife to let her know he took cover when a pop-up thunderstorm interrupted his training during a bike ride through central Ohio. She might have to come get him if the weather didn't break soon, he said.
Julie Zito was worried about him being exposed to the thunder and lightning if he continued. However, their 8-year-old twin daughters, Frankie and Gigi, were more concerned daddy was caught in a pizza shop wearing spandex.
It's a small sacrifice the Columbus Blue Jackets senior vice president of hockey operations and associate general manager has made in what has become one of the most humbling and gratifying endeavors of his life.
After Julie was diagnosed with breast cancer in May, Zito has accomplished one ambitious goal and will attempt the other Saturday when he joins an expected 8,000 cyclists for the Pelotonia, which through its first 10 years has raised more than $195 million for The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and the Richard Solove Research Institute.
Zito, 54, wanted to break the single-year record for fundraising by an individual of $125,000; as of Thursday morning, he had commitments for more than $139,000.
"It's extraordinary," he said. "I can't come up with the right words to describe it … Every day the emails I've been getting from different people in all walks of life, from cancer survivors, from people who have cancer, from people I have no relation to at all. Schoolchildren, neighbors, people in my life I haven't spoken to in over 40 years. It's a special group of people who have contributed. It's mind blowing and fun. It's wonderful."
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Bill Davidge, the Blue Jackets longtime TV and radio analyst who retired in May, is not surprised by Zito's desire to help others. Davidge, a cancer survivor, said Zito has helped the Davidge family raise money to fight multiple myeloma, a cancer formed by malignant plasma cells that affects bone marrow.
"When you think of giving and paying forward, Billy Zito is one guy that comes to mind," Davidge said. "Don't do something halfway. You've got to get it done. That's the Bill Zito I know."
As a novice cyclist, Zito could have chosen a route as short as 25 miles for Pelotonia but instead opted to ride a 100-mile winding course from Columbus through farm country (plenty of that) and hills (yes, there a few in Ohio) to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
"Thankfully, they don't time it and hopefully I'll make it through and finish it," said Zito, who began training in June after seeing a Pelotonia poster at the James Cancer Hospital where Julie is undergoing 20 weeks of chemotherapy, to be followed by a double mastectomy this fall.
The fundraising is personal for Zito. His sister, Maggy Schultz, died in January after having Hodgkin's disease, pancreatic cancer and breast cancer. His mother, Priscilla Zito, is going through her second bout of pancreatic cancer; seeing her get through it once encourages him.
"Mom is a survivor," he said. "They're a lot of good treatments now. The money (raised) works."
He was at a loss for words when asked if seeing loved ones battle cancer motivates him during his rides. After a long pause, he said. "I don't know. You put in the time to finish but I don't equate this with their struggle, their battle. The training part is something I have to do. It's no different than a number of people."
The training has been tough but rewarding.
"I've really come to love the sport of biking," Zito said. "I've never appreciated it like I do now. I've met a lot of very nice people. The people involved around town have been unbelievable in helping. I've really enjoyed the process in getting to know some new people, some new friends. The program is hard but riding out there has been quite nice."
Davidge's pride in Zito taking up biking goes beyond raising money.
"It not only benefits others and benefits his wife, it also benefits himself," he said. "He's saving his own life by doing what he's doing. He's dropping weight, he's getting back in shape. He looks outstanding. That's a tribute to him."
To donate to Zito's fundraiser and for more information on Pelotonia, click here.