Article by JC Baumuller
ORANGEBURG, N.Y. - The 10th Strongman Challenge proved to be the biggest in size of crowd, number of participants and total amount of money raised for the Michael LaViola Foundation.
The Foundation is named for the late son of Mike and Mary LaViola, who died of cancer Feb. 2, 2008, five months before his 21st birthday and the day before his beloved New York Giants won Super Bowl XLII.
A couple of months after Michael’s death, Morgan Procida, a friend of his sister, Katie, organized a 5K walk/run to raise funds for Matt’s Promise, a non-profit foundation dedicated to making a difference in the lives of young people affected by terminal illnesses.
Procida was a co-captain of the girls cross-country team at NV/Old Tappan at the time and had always hoped to do a benefit run.
“[Having known LaViola] really makes you just want to not take any day for granted and do anything you want whenever you get the chance,” Procida said in 2008.
The funds raised were donated to Matt’s Promise in Michael’s memory and forwarded to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Michael had received treatment.
“It was well-attended,” Mike LaViola said of the run. “Michael’s death was fresh in everyone’s mind.”
A year later the LaViolas formed the foundation to keep their son’s memory alive and the first fund-raising event was a dinner with entertainment at a golf club and raffle of a two-seat “smart car” in June. The event netted the foundation $30,000.
Joe Riggio, co-owner/founder of Varsity House, approached the LaViolas with the idea to have a Strongman Challenge where local athletes would compete in various strength tests for prizes. Michael had been a devoted athlete and gym rat, having been trained by Riggio since his sophomore year in high school.
“[The Strongman Challenge] seemed like the right thing to do,” Michael’s close friend Jarrod Mundy said. “It was something Michael liked to do - being at the gym with everyone. He was a guy you liked to be around. People gravitated to him. Having an event like this kind of dawned on everybody at once.
It’s wonderful the whole community rallies behind the event. You get the feeling he’s around. Mike would be happy everybody is having a good time.”
The LaViolas gave Riggio and company the go-head and the Challenge began in July 2009.
“It was done at the last-minute,” Mike LaViola said. “It made a couple of thousand dollars. That was the start of it and it’s gotten bigger every year.”
Twenty-eight athletes, from junior high to college participated in the inaugural event, competing in everything from lifting 65-pound kegs to pulling a 4,500-pound Honda truck.
Each participant paid a $25 entry fee, 10 sponsors donated $350 and T-shirts and raffle tickets were sold. All funds raised were donated to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md for synovial sarcoma cancer research.
“No funding goes directly for sarcoma [research],” Mike LaViola explained. “It’s what they call an ‘orphan’ cancer.”
“People heard about it and were sending checks [after the event],” said Varsity House co-owner/founder Dan Goodman. “They were asking if we were going to do it again in the future. We thought we might be onto something.”
In addition to the donations for cancer research the foundation has been awarding scholarships to two members of the senior class at NV/Old Tappan. One goes to a football player with a proven work ethic and the other to someone who will pursue further education in the field of medicine. Madeleine McSweeney, who will study nursing in college and Sal DeBenedetto, who will play football at Gettysburg College earned the scholarships this year.
“I thought about it the entire year,” DeBenedetto said. “I always see Mr. LaViola in the hallways (at NVOT where he is a security guard). I filled out the application and prayed.”
DeBennetto has been training at Varsity House since his sophomore year in high school and credits the gym with getting him ready for the next level of play.
“I’m well-prepared for college, both mentally and physically,” he said. “The environment here is great. It helps you get better.”
A major reason the event keeps growing is due to the Varsity House “family.”
“This is a reunion and call to action,” said Goodman. “We have willing athletes. Kids are distracted with a lot of things today. Without the courage of these kids this event would not happen. It’s an opportunity for athletes to show off their hard work. We have ‘throw-back’ kids willing to lay it on the line.
“We have a lot of schools working out here so when we call in favors we have people who are pumped up, ready to help in any way. It’s random acts of kindness. More than 100 people are helping out. It’s a collective effort.”
One group that has been loyal to the Strongman Challenges are Michael’s friends, especially Chris Kenneally, Anthony Macho and Mundy.
“This event has come so far,” Kenneally said. “Varsity House has grown and the event has grown.”
Macho remembers Michael as someone who never let his illness get him down. He had a leg amputated and he actually began to feel better. He started working out again and got back to the “normal stuff,” according to Macho.
“He always had a positive attitude,” Macho said. “He wanted to be treated like a normal person. We wanted to put something together for kids. We explain about Mike. He was a strong person, a varsity athlete.”
Katie LaViola remembers her brother, who was four years her senior, for “picking on her out of love.”
“I always had a firm belief that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “It was tough to have that outlook after Michael died. Over the years I got it back.”
Katie adds that although she is working in the fashion industry at the present time she is thinking of going back to school to become a nurse.
“It stems from my brother,” she said. “Without him getting sick I would not have realized [I wanted to change careers]. I want to be helping kids.
“Michael was always positive and he made sure everyone was OK. I couldn’t be anything else.”
Mary LaViola, who now trains at Varsity House, said that Michael was a “loving boy.”
“We had a close relationship,” she said. “He loved his dad, his friends and doing family things. He liked to be home spending time with his family. He was good hearted and always helped people. People said, ‘you raised him right.’ He never complained [about his illness]. He wanted to be like everyone else. He never felt sorry for himself.”
“I can’t imagine dealing with something like that in the public eye,” said Goodman. “It takes courage.”
“The LaViolas are so strong to continue to do something for their son,” added Macho. “They are our second family.”
Although Michael’s friends plan to attend the Strongman Challenge for many years to come, there is also talk of organizing other events to raise funds.
“As we get older, we might plan golf outings,” Kenneally said with a laugh. “We want to make the LaViolas proud and let kids know they can get scholarships.”
“Our goal is to make it bigger,” added Macho. “We’ll always be here to help out and recognize him. I think Mike would want us to get together.”
The 2018 Strongman Challenge raised about $19,000, bringing the total to nearly $180,000 in 10 years. And with the number of participants and spectators they should go over the $200,000 mark in 2019.
“I can’t believe it’s 10 years since I lost my brother,” Katie LaViola said. “In those 10 years we’ve done so much to keep his memory alive. We’re trying to turn tragedy into something good. He would be so proud.”
“We miss him terribly,” Mike LaViola said of his only son. “It’s good to remember him in a positive way, gaining positive results. Mary and I hope to do this as long as we possibly can.”
Article by JC Baumuller