Taylor Hooton Foundation > Hoot’s Corner > General > THF Chairman Neil Romano, baseball's quiet hero, takes fight to cancer
February 17, 2015
THF Chairman Neil Romano, baseball's quiet hero, takes fight to cancer
 Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports8:31 a.m. EST February 17, 2015 XXX ROMANO-DEC034.JPG S  BBO USA TX (Photo: USA TODAY Sports) 316CONNECT 26TWEET 6LINKEDIN 1COMMENTEMAILMORE HOUSTON — Neil Romano cries, when no one is looking. His family cries, but only when Romano is not around. Romano, one of Major League Baseball’s quiet heroes and certainly its forefather of health initiatives, has been confined to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston the last seven months with leukemia. He was told last month that his cancer is now in remission, and if there are no complications from a stem cell transplant, he could be released from the hospital Friday – just as spring training camps open in Florida and Arizona. “You realize that with cancer,” Romano tells USA TODAY Sports, “even though you are the one going through it, your family really goes through it. “But I have a very, very personal strong faith system. I know my family doesn’t want to hear this, but I’m thinking death is not that bad. I’m at peace with whatever happens. I know this is not the end of the journey for me. “My mortality is not as important as what I’ve tried to do through my programs.” You name a public awareness program in baseball, and Romano has played an integral role. He’s the former assistant secretary of labor for Disability Employment Policy, including a tenure as director of communications of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy. He started PLAY, promoting a lifetime of activity for youth. He helped develop the National Spit Tobacco Education Program’s mission, dramatically reducing its use in baseball. He is chairman of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organization aiming to reduce steroid use among youth. He was appointed Feb. 3 by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the National Council on Disability. “He has been a true leader in this game,” says former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, now a Commissioner Emeritus. “We owe so much to him. So many of our health programs in our game were started by him. He’s meant a great deal to me. “I owe him so much.” Selig was then asked about Romano’s health, undergoing cancer treatments for the past year. “Oh, my God,” Selig said. “I had no idea. My goodness.” Romano, who has been fighting for his life, and in isolation after a stem cell transplant, has kept his illness a secret until recently. “I’m sure whoever gets something like I have,” Romano says, “they have to look at people and feel like they let people down. I’m not about to let anyone down.” He may have lost his hair, and stripped of his much of his energy, but he refused to let leukemia interfere with his mission. “When he told me he was diagnosed with leukemia,” says Don Hooton, who started the Taylor Hooton Foundation after his son’s suicide, “it completely took the wind out of my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. “You have to understand, Neil has been my rock.” Romano will never forget the day. It was Dec. 21, 2013. He went in for a checkup after months of feeling lethargic, and prolonged tightness in his side and a rapidly developed pot belly. There was no need for words after seeing the fear in his doctor’s eyes. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. Romano’s mind raced wildly. “I thought I had 72 hours to live,” he said. His doctor assured him that he was going to live longer. He had at least three months. If he underwent aggressive cancer treatment, and everything went as well as possible, his doctors told him, he could have 18 months to three years. Now, with his cancer in remission, he could out-live all of us. “I also know that remission can last a month,” Romano says, “or 30 years. So now I am praying my remission holds as long as God wills it.” All Romano knows is that he refuses to be a burden, and no, don’t even think of diminishing his workload. “Neil is a guy who would give you everything you possibly needed,” says Chicago Cubs director of medical administration Mark O’Neal, president of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society. “But he just didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He didn’t want anyone to know he was even sick. I think he was a little bit afraid how people would handle it. “It was like he was saying, ‘Don’t take this away from me.’ This is his soul and passion.” Despite being confined to his hotel room connected to the clinic, Romano has continued writing speeches. He has been on conference calls. He has continued working in all of his awareness campaigns, from steroids, to chewing tobacco, to youth participation to ending discrimination for the disabled. He just has to wait a little while to personally deliver those speeches. He has been permitted to leave the hospital only three times in the last seventh months. Two were weekend trips to his Maryland home. The other was on Aug. 6, the day he walked his oldest daughter, Bianca, down the aisle for her wedding. Romano had to wear gloves during the ceremony. He couldn’t kiss anyone. He wasn’t even supposed to hug anyone. Every precaution was taken to protect him from germs. “I was going to my daughter’s wedding no matter what,” Romano said. “And my biggest gift I could give to my daughter was walking out there and not having a single person know I was sick. “I danced with the bride. And I danced with my wife.” He returned to the clinic a few days after the wedding and collapsed, exhausted. He believes that no matter what transpired afterward, he already lived a dream. “You know, I walk around here, and see people much older than me,” Romano says quietly. “Then, I see kids in here. I say, ‘Lord, thanks a lot. I’m cool. I’m really cool. “I’ve had 60 incredible years.” Now, on the verge of finally being released from the hospital – three months after undergoing a stem cell transplant Nov. 4 from his oldest sister, Liz – he’s already planning a party. It will be March 14 at his home in Celebration, Fla. His home is expected to be filled with the baseball community celebrating life with him. “People in the public may not know who he is,” says Joe Garagiola Sr., “but I guarantee everyone in the baseball offices knows him. If they don’t, they should stop and find out. “If they ever had a Hall of Fame for helping people in this game, and who made a difference, I guarantee Neil Romano would be the first person walking through that door.” “He’s a hero.” *** ‘Ask Tony Gwynn’ It was a simple e-mail addressed to me one day. It was from Romano. I didn’t know him. Really, I never heard of him. And he was chastising me for a USA TODAY Sports advertisement that said of yours truly, “He gets so inside their heads you can almost taste the chaw.” Romano berated me for three paragraphs and ended the e-mail by saying: “Maybe you should get into Tony Gwynn’s head right now. Taste that chaw. Ask Tony Gwynn what the chaw tastes like.” Gwynn, the beloved Hall of Fame player, died June 16, 2014, of cancer, believing it was a may have been caused by a lifetime chewing tobacco. He was just 54. That’s when I got to know Neil Romano. “It was a pretty nasty line,” Romano tells me. “I’m sorry.” There was no reason to apologize. It was the passion pouring out of Romano’s heart, trying to convince baseball players to stop using chewing tobacco. He would spend spring training visiting every training camp with Garagiola, lecturing players on the ill effects of chewing tobacco. They would bring along Bill Tuttle, whose face is deformed from surgeries caused by the cancer developed from chewing tobacco. “I prayed for Tony Gwynn,” Romano says. “I pray for Curt Schilling. I think about him being screwed down to a table and undergoing radiation where he can smell his own face burning.” Romano and Garagiola convinced Selig and the rest of baseball to ban the distribution of chewing tobacco in clubhouses. Players are now prohibited from carrying chewing tobacco in their back uniform pockets. They are required to spit out the tobacco when doing TV interviews. They still are hoping one day it is completely banned from the game. Romano’s advocacy stretches back decades, when he took up against cocaine abuse. He was behind an ad that aired during the 1986 All-Star Game, featuring Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt warning against the dangers of cocaine. Romano’s classmate, Billy Tinsley, a high-school basketball star, died of a drug overdose. “It was the classic Len Bias story,” Romano says. “I remember the feeling of what a waste. What a waste. It immediately struck in me that sports for me was a platform.” He ran for U.S. Congress in northern New Jersey in 1984, knowing he had little chance to win at the age of 29, but realizing he had a platform. “I ran only because it was a huge stage,” Romano said. “All I wanted to talk about was drugs, and drug abuse, and the devastation it had on the American family.” It was but one of his causes. He brought awareness to AIDS. He created a public service announcement in his fight for equality for persons with disabilities. He is the chairman of the Hooton Foundation. He was the one behind the ads for Jim Abbott, born without a right arm, and Curtis Pride, a hearing-impaired player who, like Abbott, played in the major leagues. He wants his next project to focus on Bo Jackson, perhaps the greatest athlete of our generation, who overcame a severe stuttering problem. “We have to fight for people with disabilities,” says Romano, who has overcome dyslexia and whose oldest brother, Robert, 67, is a quadriplegic. “It’s terrifying what’s going on out there. I’ve seen it before my very own eyes. I’ve seen this generation of people thrown into these prisons of neglect based on our expectations of them. It’s so pathetic and sad to see. “As Jim Abbott said to me, “I don’t know if I would have gotten a job stocking shelves if not for baseball.’ Sitting with Curtis Pride, he told me, “I don’t know if I could get another job outside the deaf world except for baseball. “People give up on people so damn quickly.” *** Strong faith Just three years ago, Atlanta Braves athletic trainer Jeff Porter lost his wife, Kathy, in a car accident when a speeding police cruiser blindsided his car taking his family to the Chick-fil-A Bowl game. “When I walked outside that church that day after the (funeral service), the first people I see are Neil Romano and Barbara,” Porter says. “I couldn’t believe it. “You just don’t run into people like him. His faith is so strong. I pray for Neil every day.” Such acts of kindness are now being returned. Rex Jones, the Houston Astros’ trainer, stops by the hospital every week to check on Romano and take his wife out to lunch. O’Neal flew in from Chicago just to spend a day. Rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t hear from Baltimore Orioles trainer Richie Bancells or another trainer. “There’s a reason why God put us here,” Barbara Romano says. “You learn to enjoy every single day. You get your priorities straight. There are so many people that have touched us, and so many people that we’ve touched at the hospital here. “I know how bad Neil wants to get back to work.” Romano actually tried retirement 11 years ago. It didn’t last more than a few months. He still had plenty of unfinished business. “Neil has never had a job,” his wife, Barbara, loves to say, “but he’s always had a cause.” Sure, there are some rough days, Jones knows, from his frequent visits. There are days he simply has no energy, or doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. “He just won’t let everyone know about it,” Jones says. “The worst you’ll ever hear him say is, ‘I’m doing OK.”’ Now, if there are no complications, Romano will be released. Sure, there will be restrictions. He must always be within a 30-minute drive from a local hospital for at least 100 days. And always, there will be the fear that cancer will return. Romano can deal with those nuances. He plans to live his life with every ounce of energy his body will tolerate. “If my cancer comes back,” Romano says, “so be it. I’ve had more love in 2014 than I had in my lifetime. There was a lot of pain, but a lot of love, and a lot of loving people. “Who is as lucky as me?”​