It started out as a dinner to help the young daughter of a Belleville, NJ native, who passed away at a young age, to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to attend her dad's alma mater.
Sixteen years later, that mission has been accomplished, while the long-term commitment has certainly magnified.
The Robert Luongo Fund dinner has brought together thousands of friends since 2005, honoring the late Robert Luongo, a Belleville, NJ native and Harvard University graduate, who died in March 2004 from ALS, known to many as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Phil Cuzzi, a Major League Baseball umpire and one of Luongo's closest friends, began the event in 2005 as a way to honor his pal, while keeping a promise to help Luongo's daughter, Dominique, attend her dad's alma mater one day.
"The last time I saw Robert, I said to him, 'Rob, you will never have to worry about Dominique's education," Cuzzi recalled. "I will get our community and the baseball community involved, to raise whatever we need to send her wherever she wants to go.'"
Dominique has gone on to graduate from Harvard and is now considering Harvard Law School.
However, the dinner continues to percolate, with a continued emphasis to find a cure for ALS, while donating generously to worthy causes and entertaining large crowds with some popular athletes and celebrities.
Cuzzi and Luongo were graduates of Belleville High School, Class of 1973. Cuzzi often refers to his classmates as the Fightin' 73's, and many members of that class have been very supportive of the event.
According to the fund's website (https://robertluongoalsfund.org/) the mission is "to alleviate the financial burden of individuals and their families, that have been victimized b ALS, including assistance in the educational needs of their children. By providing ongoing financial support for research, we hope to win the fight against this dreadful disease."
Past guest speakers at the dinner, which has been held at Nanina's in the Park, in Belleville, since its inception, include MLB managers Tony LaRussa, Joe Girardi, Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda and Jim Leyland. Celebrities who attend include Steven Schirripa, Bob Costas and Uncle Floyd. Professional boxers Larry Holmes and Jerry Cooney are regulars. Former baseball greats Bobby Richardson, Bobby Valentine and Dwight Gooden have attended, as has umpire Bruce Froemming, the guest speaker at the first dinner, and Cuzzi's crew chief, in 2001.
A wonderful silent auction has fulfilled the dreams of sports memorabilia fans, while a live auction has even more items.
Because of COVID, the 2021 dinner, scheduled for Jan. 28, will be a virtual one, but there's plenty of excitement, as well. Costas, Valentine, Torre and former Yankees great, Bucky Dent, will participate and more surprises are surely in store.
There will be much more information on the dinner, including the format for the event, which Cuzzi will once again headline. In the meantime, mark the date and check out the website, www.robertluongoalsfund.org, for more details and how to purchase tickets for the 2021 event.
A video of the event can be found here