LONG POND, Pa. — The African boy must have been about 10 years old and suffered from a form of cancer that gutted his frame to just bones.
There was no cure. There was nothing doctors could do except pump the frail child with morphine and wait. He was going to die.
The boy was brought to a hospital in Butare from one where the top treatment available was simple Tylenol. Yes, for cancer.
Jeff Gordon was crushed by a feeling of helplessness watching the young child in agony. Gordon knew that if, somehow, there was exemplary medical care available to the boy when he was first struck by the disease, perhaps a better fate awaited him.
Gordon, one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, is a part of a team these days far removed from the bustle at the racetrack. He’s devoted to funding programs through his foundation that aid children with cancer by improving their care and their lives.
“I genuinely want to see a child get better. I don’t want to see children suffer,” he said.
It’s that drive that brought Gordon to Rwanda last month to celebrate the opening of the Butaro Cancer Center, the first specialized cancer treatment center in the country. Gordon was joined in dedicating the facility by Former President Bill Clinton and Rwanda President Paul Kagame — two of the few heavy hitters who can actually compete with Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as teammates.
Gordon sure didn’t make the trip to Africa on one of his rare off weeks from the grind of the Sprint Cup season simply for a photo opp. The Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation donated $1.5 million to the center that now boasts an emergency department, a full surgery ward with two operating rooms, and significantly expanded laboratory capabilities, among other necessities. Gordon has visited Africa twice in the last year, making a connection with the children, learning about its culture, and understanding how he can best use his millions earned over a 21-year career to help eradicate diseases like cancer.
“That’s what we’re dealing with in Africa,” Gordon said. “Saving lives.”
Heady stuff coming from an athlete in a sport where saving fuel near the checkered flag is considered a good weekend. He’s easily become NASCAR’s charitable champion — and can strike a Heisman pose to prove it. Gordon was flanked on a podium by Heisman Trophy winners George Rogers and Tim Brown at Pocono Raceway where the four-time Cup champion was honored as the seventh recipient of the Heisman Humanitarian Award.
The Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation has raised more than $11 million for children’s charities through the years. As part of the award, the Heisman Trophy Trust will donate $50,000 to Gordon’s foundation.
“Fundraising and charitable work is only as successful as the person who’s behind it and the name that’s behind it,” Johnson said.
Gordon’s primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series is the AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger, an initiative that seeks to end hunger for 9 million people over the age of 50.
“We work so hard out here to try and win and put so much effort into it,” Gordon said. “Yet, 10, 15 years from now, what is it all going to mean? Those trophies are nice, but they do tarnish. When you try and save a life … those are the things that stick with you for a lifetime.”
As the father of two young children, Gordon is astonished by scenes he’s witnessed Africa, like the time he saw a barefoot toddler, blanketed in dirt and dust wandering alone by the side of a pothole-littered road.
Gordon believes in the optimism and perseverance of the people, and the African leadership involved in his various goodwill projects. Gordon has traveled on fact-finding missions to the Congo on behalf the Clinton Global Initiative — on the same trip with actress Ashley Judd (the wife of Dario Franchitti to some racing fans) — to target problems and discover potential solutions for global issues.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Haiti or Africa, just going out and seeing other part of the world are going through, it’s a great experience to put things in perspective and keep things humble; to not get caught up in our own world,” he said.
Gordon met Chelsea Clinton on his last trip to Rwanda.
And he sat next to former president Clinton at a CGI dinner.
No. 42, meet No. 24.
“I was just blown away by his commitment and the power he has to bring people together,” Gordon said.
Clinton, who attended the 2003 Indianapolis 500, wanted to talk about more than changing the world: There was plenty of interest in NASCAR.
Gordon’s philanthropic efforts have deep roots stretching to trips in the early 1990s to Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston Salem, N.C., when he was a fledgling driver on NASCAR’s second-tier circuit. Gordon asked himself, why visit these hospitals?
“These kids don’t want to see me, they don’t care who I am,” Gordon said. “Then someone tells them, ‘He’s a NASCAR driver.’ They light up and smile. You see it does have an impact. When you’re able to have that kind of impact on somebody, it changes the way you look at it.”
Gordon turns solemn, however, while he talks about the many times he’s met with a sick child only to get an email, sometimes just days later, saying the child has died. Gordon remains humbled and honored by the requests.
“How can you not do it?” he said.
In 1999, his foundation was launched. In 2006, he helped open the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital in Concord, N.C.
He won all four of his championships by 2001 and still has the motivation he did then to celebrate another title, even as the wins dried up.
“I think the last couple of years, the toughest thing on me has been not winning as much, not having as much confidence,” he said.
Gordon spoke with The Associated Press last week, one day before he turned 41 — and two days before he won his 86th career race and moved into the second wild-card spot for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The Drive for Five is alive, indeed.
He has no plans to retire any time soon, even as days are devoured by family time, racing, and charity work.
“I do what I can with my time,” he said.