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Tampa Bay, FL-Badge Bowl VIII Flag Football

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Badge Bowl VIII,

TAMPA - Well, the Bucs are finally winners. I guess that's a load off as they head to Miami. And now let's get to the bigger football game this weekend, the one where everyone wins.

The Badge Bowl, a community treasure, is set for Saturday night at Wharton High School. This is Badge Bowl VIII, and like the first seven, it's Tampa Fire Rescue against Tampa Police in flag football, all for charity, Tampa's Bravest versus Tampa's Finest. Anywhere you point, there's probably a hero. And each one would point to the real king of courage, the guest of honor.

His name is Avery Ralston. He's 5 years old and a kindergartener at Kimbell Elementary School in North Tampa. Avery has battled leukemia for two years. Now he has an army behind him.

There was a Badge Bowl pep rally for Avery in the school cafeteria Tuesday morning. His classmates made signs and cheered. There was a fire truck and police cars, and they hit their sirens and horns, all for Avery. Badge Bowl VIII is a night game, but who needs lights when you have Avery's grin and a sea of glowing, helping hearts? "This has been such a blessing," said Ashley Ralston, Avery's mother. She wiped away tears, again. She and Avery were late to school Tuesday because her car broke down, again. Avery's dad died in his sleep a few years ago. He was 32. The Ralstons lost their home to foreclosure. Ashley has two other boys, and sometimes life is a struggle.

That's where the Badge Bowl comes in. Each year, Badge Bowl's Foundation of Courage as well as 1Voice Foundation, two non-profit organizations, choose a child with cancer and whose family is in financial need. A portion of the proceeds from the game tries to help that family, paying bills, buying groceries, something, anything. About 2,000 people attended Badge Bowl last year. About $40,000 was raised.

"'Overwhelming' is the only way to describe the love and support," said Katie Cerchione, whose 7-year-old son Angelo was last year's honoree. She can still see the smile on his face when he was holding the game ball, which was delivered to the field by a police helicopter. "Angelo loved that."

Badge Bowl takes lots of volunteers, can-do people, will-do people, like Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett and Tampa Fire Rescue driver-engineer Mike Pease, two Badge Bowl co-founders - and the team captains.

"The first couple of years, I couldn't get through a TV interview about these kids without crying," Bennett said.

"It's about them," Pease said.

It began in 2002. A wonderful lady named Cheryl Ryan wanted to do something for her friends the Dumkes. Taylor Dumke, then 7, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Taylor was a cheerleader and soccer player in the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association. Cheryl asked the WCAA for help. Mike Pease, a WCAA coach, said why not have a flag football game with fire rescue and the police? John Bennett joined in. The next thing you knew, Taylor Dumke was riding a fire truck to Badge Bowl I. She loved it. Taylor's mom, Nicole, helped start the Foundation of Courage to help keep the game an annual event.

"These people will be in our heart the rest of our lives," Nicole said. We'd do well to remember the participants in this game. We forget them sometimes, forget what they do. Both teams will wear small reminders on their jerseys Saturday, the No. 12, the badge number worn by Cpl. Mike Roberts, a Tampa police officer killed in the line of duty in August.

As for the football, "flag" is slightly misleading. It's all out. Bennett, longtime quarterback for TPD, separated his shoulder in last year's bowl. "The fire guys treated me," he said with a grin. Badge Bowl is a carnival, with music and games and raffles and an auction and cheerleaders and, of course, police vehicles and fire trucks, good for kid climbing. There'll be a parade for Avery and an award for him, though every pediatric cancer patient at the game (loads attend) receives a medal, too. Badge Bowl wants to make it the time of these kids' lives.

Four of the first seven Badge Bowl honorees, small, brave souls, have lost their fights. One, 6-year-old Desirae Bravo, passed away two weeks before her Badge Bowl in 2004. The game went on.

"Some of these parents have told me that Badge Bowl was one of the special moments of these children's lives," Mike Pease said. So it's on to Badge Bowl VIII. The Wharton gates open at 5 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults and $1 for children under 12. At Kimbell Elementary on Tuesday, one child under 12, man of the hour Avery, climbed off a fire truck. Someone asked him who was going to win on Saturday. Big smile. "Me," Avery said.

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