He has competed so many times before. But no matter what the situation, there was one person too afraid to attend -- an elderly woman who refused to come to any of his football games, whether it was middle school, high school or college. She couldn't bare to see her grandson, Justin Nunez, get hurt.
Yet it was he who would be forced to watch her suffer from pain.
"The last few weeks of her life," Nunez says, "were very tough.
"To see someone who was once so full of life become a shell of who they were was extremely painful to witness."
Nunez's grandmother's struggle with ovarian cancer would become the driving force behind his desire to be crowned "Wall Street's Best Athlete" while raising funds to reduce the suffering of others in her honor.
So late in October, Nunez was back on his former field, at Columbia University's Wien Stadium, where he played football for the Lions from 2003 through 2007. The 27-year-old banker from Goldman Sachs was competing in The Decathlon, a challenge for jocks or wannabees on Wall Street to prove their worth on the athletic field, while raising money for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Yes, Wall Street bankers are about as sympathetic these days as, well, NBA owners (many of whom went to the same schools). But this charity event has raised nearly a half million dollars by bringing together 100 bankers, brokers, analysts, and traders to compete in 10 athletic events in a single day.
"First and foremost, my overall goal was to raise as much money as possible for the charity," Nunez says. "After that, my goal was to win."
Brad Bagdis is an assistant vice president at Knight Capital Group, a former All-Ivy League defensive lineman and captain of Harvard's football team. But if you talk to him for any length of time, he'll talk about his identity as the grandson of four grandparents who all died "from one form of cancer or another."
"Cancer is a pervasive disease that impacts every single person, whether it be directly or indirectly," Bagdis says, "and that is why I feel The Decathlon ... resonates with all of us."
Bagdis shattered the event record with a 43-inch vertical jump, and bagged an extra $50,000 from an anonymous donor.
There are so many others. Douglas Schlack, a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald/BGC Partners, says his grandmother, Vincenzina Harris, who died from ovarian cancer in 2010, has been with him in spirit the entire time he was preparing for The Decathlon.
"When things got tough in training and on Oct 22nd," Schlack says, "I thought of her and all the other cancer patients and just dug as deep as I possibly could. I knew what she had to go through each time she went for chemotherapy and how she felt days after."
While so many who work on Wall Street are well-off enough to support their families, many come from families that once struggled to support themselves. Out of that struggle came generations that could afford to put time and money into charity. And many have put serious effort into fighting a disease that robs from rich and poor alike.
Adam Katz is a 35-year-old Vice President and private banker at Bank of America's Merrill Lynch unit. He finished an un-astonishing 57th overall in The Decathlon this year. But for him, like so many others, it wasn't about how he finished -- it was about how much money he was able to raise.
Katz's mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and died before he competed in The Decathlon last year. Then he learned from his father that his maternal grandmother and grandfather both died of cancer decades earlier.
Katz took home the prize for top fundraiser for the second year in a row.
This isn't an Olympic Decathlon. Events consist of the kind of tests we all do on the weekends: a football throw, a 40-yard dash, a vertical jump, and the bench press.
Nunez ran the fastest time in his first attempt in the 40-yard dash, clocking 4.53 seconds. But in his second attempt, he tweaked his right hamstring, killing his chance to participate in the event's big publicity stunt.
Organizers had arranged for the winner of the 40-yard-dash to face-off with Willie Gault, the three-time world-record holder in track, former Olympian, and wide receiver who won a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears.
"I ran the fastest time and I was supposed to race him, but I didn’t think it would be a wise decision to run against him given my injury," Nunez says. "Maybe I can get a rematch in a few weeks."
Instead, another competitor got the chance and smoked the 51-year-old Gault.
But Nunez kept his eye on the big prize. In the final events, Nunez held his own in the vertical jump and kept pace in the 175-pound bench press. He finished among the top five in the last event, the 800-meter dash, to seal the victory.
The Englewood, N.J., native knew who to thank -- both those present in the stands, and the one who never could to be.
"In the realm of my athletic career, I would put this up there with one of my greatest accomplishments. I can say I wouldn't have won it without them."
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