Sunday, April 10, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On the night of Dec. 4, Penguins forward Mike Rupp was in Columbus. He played a strong game in a 7-2 win, scoring a goal and holding his own in a fight with Blue Jackets enforcer Jared Boll.
That same night, Nicole Cleland was in hell. She was in terrible physical pain with a shattered pelvis after a South Side automobile accident and in much worse emotional pain after getting the horrific news that her daughter, Lexa, 7, had been killed in the crash, which police say was caused by a drunken driver.
Monday night, Rupp's and Cleland's worlds will intersect at Consol Energy Center. There won't be a better sports story in Pittsburgh all year.
Rupp and his wife, Christi, have organized an autograph session to benefit the Cleland family of South Park. His teammates Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik will be there only a couple of days before the Penguins begin what they hope is a long playoff grind. Pirates Paul Maholm and Pedro Alvarez also will take part on their first off day since March 22.
"We only have this platform as professional athletes for a certain period of time," Rupp said. "Let's use it the right way. What good is it if we don't use it to help someone?"
That the Rupps are involved hardly is surprising. "They're just good human beings," said Jill Shipley of the Penguins' community relations staff. Although Rupp has been with the team just two seasons, he and his wife have given back time and again to the community, mostly to the Ronald McDonald House. Last summer, Rupp joined Penguins teammate Max Talbot and former major league baseball player Sean Casey of Upper St. Clair on a fundraising trip to Haiti.
"I've always wanted to do things like this," Rupp said. "The difference is [Christi] does them. She gives me little nudges." Said Christi Rupp, "He's a hockey player and has a certain level of fame that goes with that. I'm not afraid to ride his coattails to help people. I'm just a wife and a mother. All I have to give is my heart."
The Rupps sponsor nine children internationally. They said their three kids -- Madeline, 8, Mason, 6, and Max, 1 -- benefit from those relationships just as much as the children they are supporting. "We encouraged our two older ones to use their own money to buy something to send them," Christi Rupp said. "So they did. They sent Silly Bandz. I like to think that teaches them, 'It's not just about me,' and 'I want this' and 'I want more toys.' It's supposed to be about, 'What can I give to others?' "
It was Christi Rupp who first became aware of the Cleland tragedy. Nicole Cleland was driving a Toyota Camry on East Carson Street with her daughters, Lexa and Kathleen, then 11 months, when a car driven by Travis Isiminger, 23, of Holbrook, Greene County, crossed the center line and struck the Cleland vehicle head on. Lexa, a second-grader in the South Park School District, died of head and neck injuries. In addition to Nicole's pelvis injury, she lost her unborn child by miscarriage. Kathleen had minor injuries.
Isiminger was charged with a variety of offenses, including third-degree murder. Police say he was more than twice as drunk as the law permits. Nicole Cleland and her husband, Mark, have sued Isiminger and Hofbrauhaus, the South Side establishment where Isiminger is said to have been drinking before the accident.
Christi Rupp saw Mark Cleland on television talking about the wonderful way the community wrapped its arms around his family. "He said he knew how great Pittsburgh was, but he didn't know how great Pittsburgh people really were," she said. "I cried."
"We have to do something for this family," Christi Rupp told her husband. Then, in an email to Shipley, she wrote, "We really have to do something. Our hearts are breaking."
Mike Rupp took care of lining up Letang and Orpik. "They were the first two guys I asked. I'm sure I could have asked anyone and they would have been glad to do it." Christi Rupp is friends with Maholm's wife, Jessica, who immediately volunteered her husband. The Maholms asked Alvarez, who quickly said, "I'm in."
Shipley coordinated the business end. The autograph session, which will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m., will be limited to 300 people. The wristbands required for admission sold out at $35 apiece in less than an hour. Donations still can be made to the Cleland Family Trust, 1918 McCague St., Swissvale, PA 15218.
"An hour-and-a-half of our time to help this family? That's a no-brainer," Mike Rupp said.
"Hockey is great. I love it and I've worked my tail off to play it. I continue to work my tail off. I never take it for granted. But it's just hockey. I never want to get religious on people, but I feel we have a calling to do more than just play hockey."
Mark and Nicole Cleland, who's still in a South Hills rehabilitation facility, are expected to be at Consol Energy Center. "I'm bringing lots of tissue," Christi Rupp said.
There really won't be a better sports story all year.
Rupp, 31, is in the final season of his two-year, $1.65 million contract with the Penguins. Regardless of whether the team does a new deal with him or he leaves as a free agent, he said he will sell his home in Saegertown, Crawford County, and move his family here full time.
"We always wanted to go to a place where we could just dig in," said Rupp, who also has played for New Jersey, Phoenix and Columbus, winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Devils in the 2002-03 season. "This is that place. This is where we want to raise our kids. Pittsburgh has been great to us."
That's a two-way street, you know?
Pittsburgh is better because of the Rupps.
Aren't you glad they're doing their digging here?
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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