Linda Robertson

Bike event serves as remembrance for Dolphins legend Jim Mandich

Jim Mandich rode in the first Dolphins Cycling Challenge, and in spirit, he will be riding again Saturday and Sunday in the third annual event that harnesses pedal power to the cause of curing cancer.

It will be a “Mad Dog” kind of weekend, with his alma mater, Michigan, playing Minnesota, his Dolphins playing Indianapolis and 1,500 cyclists exploring the roads of South Florida. Football, bikes, beer, community service — those things made Mandich a happy man. The broadcaster and former tight end, a member of the 1972 Perfect Season team, died April 26, 2011, at age 62 after a year-long fight against bile duct cancer.

The Dolphins Cycling Challenge embodies Mandich perfectly. It’s a rolling gathering of people of all shapes and backgrounds, on Italian racing machines and garage-sale clunkers, who arise at the crack of dawn to commune with friends and strangers, do something healthy and join the effort to conquer cancer, one mile at a time.

Mandich “could connect with anybody, at any level,” his former teammate, Dick Anderson, always said. Mandich won Super Bowl rings; he owned a successful contracting company; he went fishing in the Keys, and he commentated on Dolphins games for 17 years. Yet he never forgot his roots as the son of a hard-working Ohio saloon keeper. If a floor needed mopping, he was the first to pitch in. Mandich was a beloved Miami Dolphin, but his genuine warmth and curiosity made him a fan — a fan of people.

“Ridin’ around with the windows down,” is how he described a typical day during his sports-talk radio show.

Befitting Mandich, the ride stops for a tribute to him at Monty’s Raw Bar, a favorite watering hole where he was known to down a “Green Lizard” or three.

On the ride, you might find yourself pedaling alongside Mark Duper, pausing for a snack with Kim Bokamper, high-fiving Joe Rose, being passed by O.J. McDuffie, chatting with Zach Thomas.

This year, the ride will also stop at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Mandich was treated, to hear words of encouragement from its director, Dr. Stephen Nimer, and cheers from patients and staff.

A plague

No one can escape cancer’s tentacles. It’s the plague of our time, and if you are not acquainted with it personally, you know a relative, friend or neighbor who is. The diagnosis is all too common and the prognosis too often grim.

“Four out of five people have had a direct relative suffer from cancer,” said Michael Mandich, the oldest of Mandich’s three sons, who lost his grandmother to breast cancer. “One in 10 cancer cases in the U.S. are in Florida.”

Michael, 29, who was also a tight end at Michigan, has been appointed CEO of the DCC. He completed the two-day, 170-mile ride from Sun Life Stadium to West Palm Beach and back the first two years and plans to do it again Sunday. He has raised almost $70,000 from his donors. His mother, Bonnie, is doing the 30-mile ride, and brothers Mark and Nick are doing the 70-miler.

The scrupulously organized, ultra safe event is becoming a South Florida institution. The number of participants and the amount of money they raise through pledges has doubled each year. Dolphins CEO Mike Dee — who created the event — is projecting $2million this year, and 100 percent goes to the Sylvester center.

About 60 cancer survivors will ride. Others wear tokens of remembrance. It’s a fun day, but it also makes you think hard about cancer and the agony it has caused. Someday, we will look back on the disease the same way we look back on tuberculosis.

Marc Buoniconti and his father, Nick, have taken a similar attitude toward paralysis. Finding a cure is a matter of time, research and dedication. Fueling these efforts requires money.

Mandich understood need and the obligation to give back. Through his revival of the Miami Touchdown Club, $300,000 was raised for retired players. He set an example for sports stars to use their platform for good.

“Humility and unselfishness are values he instilled in us,” Michael said. “So many people come up to me to talk about his kindness and positive outlook. It hammers home the knowledge that he spread and received a lot of love.”

Love for fellow man, love for family — that was Mandich. He was a strict disciplinarian to his boys. They greeted his famous friends as “Mr.” or “Sir.” They did the grunt work on the refurbishment of Ziggie and Mad Dog’s — Mandich’s restaurant in Islamorada. But he also ran routes with his sons on the golf course behind their house. He’d bring them to the broadcast booth. And, best of all, he’d take them to a Michigan football game in the Big House once a season.

Giving, working

Toward the end of his life, Mandich kept giving, kept working.

Such was his 40-year love affair with the Dolphins that he even used a feeding tube to get through the last couple games of the 2010 season.

When asked how he was feeling, Mandich gave his standard reply: “Never better.”

The same can be said of the giant bike ride organized by his team in his honor.

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