Who We Play For: Ralph Maccarone named finalist for humanitarian award

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Voting open until Nov. 9

By Randi Pierce | Staff Writer

Pagosa Springs’ Ralph Maccarone, co-founder and volunteer of Who We Play For, has been named a finalist for The NASCAR Foundation’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award, which recognizes NASCAR fans who are dedicated to providing resources and support to children.

Maccarone is one of four finalists for the 12th annual award, with voting now underway to determine who will receive the award and whose organization will receive $100,000.

“It’s been amazing,” Maccarone said of the process to become a finalist.

On Thursday, Oct. 13, he was announced as a finalist on Fox Sports 1.

Maccarone is a co-founder and volunteer for Who We Play For, a nationwide organization whose mission is to eliminate preventable sudden cardiac arrest.

The organization stemmed from the unexpected loss of Maccarone’s son, Rafe, when he was 15 and the family lived in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Photo courtesy Ralph Maccarone
Ralph Maccarone, back, and son Rafe Maccarone, front, enjoy a moment playing soccer together. Rafe passed away on Dec. 1, 2007, after collapsing at soccer practice due to an undetected heart condition. Following Rafe’s death, Ralph helped form Who We Play For, which provides heart screenings for student athletes.

“On the morning of November 30, 2007, the future co-founders of Who We Play For were high school soccer players that were completely unaware of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA),” the Who We Play For website reads. “During warmups for soccer practice that afternoon, our close friend Rafe Maccarone (who had been cleared by every sports physical) laid down during a short break between warmup runs. At this time, our team had just finished a two-mile jog and we were taking time to stretch and recover. A few moments went by and now Rafe was the only person not standing up and ready to continue warmups. We quickly realized that Rafe was unconscious and rushed to his side.

“We had no idea that Rafe had a deadly undetected heart condition and, tragically, sudden cardiac arrest was his first symptom.”

Over the last 10 years, the organization has completed more than 200,000 heart screenings in seven states in an effort to detect heart conditions that would go undetected in a traditional sports physical and prevent sudden cardiac arrest, Maccarone noted. 

He indicated that there are scores of other organizations also completing screenings in the U.S.

More than 7,000 kids die annually from sudden cardiac arrest, Maccarone pointed out, calling it a “silent killer” and noting many kids don’t know they have a heart issue without the screening.

The executive director of Who We Play For, Evan Ernst, was one of Rafe’s teammates at the time of his death.

The organization has an eight-person medical team, which Maccarone notes includes some of the nation’s leading pediatricians, who recommend beginning the screenings at age 10 and being screened every couple of years.

Who We Play For has also worked with politicians to increase access to automated external defibrillator (AEDs, which are used to help people experiencing sudden cardiac arrest) and to make more rigorous screenings mandatory, with Maccarone explaining those grassroots efforts include going to school board meetings and working with state- and federal-level elected officials.

Right now, Maccarone noted, 30 percent of students are now required to undergo electrocardiogram (ECG) heart screenings as part of their school sports physical.

A bill up for decision in the Florida Legislature next year, which Maccarone noted has the backing of the Florida high school athletic association, would make CPR training mandatory to graduate high school in Florida.

The organization is also working with legislators at the national level on a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives — the Access to AEDs Act.

That bill would, according to Congress.gov, require “the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to local educational agencies and private elementary and secondary schools, in partnership with a health care entity, to promote student access to defibrillation in elementary and secondary schools.”

Maccarone explained that, in his son’s case, there was an AED at the school, but it was locked in the office since school was over for the day.

Florida has since required that an AED be present at after-school activities in Florida.

“We’re trying to raise the standard of care,” Maccarone said, adding that other countries have mandated heart screenings, but that the U.S. is behind the curve. “This is a public health issue.”

Maccarone isn’t sure how he was nominated for the award, but explained that, since March, he’s gone through several rounds of interviews with The NASCAR Foundation.

He suggested NASCAR has some familiarity with the organization since Who We Play For has done a large screening at Daytona International Speedway.

The foundation also sent a film crew down to film one of the organization’s screenings in Cocoa Beach — called “ground zero” by Maccarone.

That video is available on The NASCAR Foundation’s website.

According to The NASCAR Foundation, each finalist will receive a minimum $25,000 donation for their organization, with the overall winner receiving a $100,000 donation from The NASCAR Foundation to further their efforts.

“We have always been a grassroots organization relying on local businesses, local hospital systems to help fund our mission. It would definitely be a huge boost for us,” Maccarone said, adding it would provide funds to screen “a ton of kids.”

Currently, the organization provides the screenings for $20, but nobody is turned away for their inability to pay, and Maccarone explained the funding would go toward providing screenings for kids who can’t afford it.

For the last five years, Who We Play For has completed voluntary, free screenings for eighth-graders at Pagosa Springs Middle School, with Maccarone fundraising through his Facebook page and local Rotarians to offer the screenings for free.

If a student were to go to a hospital for an EKG, it would cost $150-$200, he noted.

A press release from The NASCAR Foundation notes, “After losing his 15-year-old son to SCA, Ralph helped to co-found Who We Play For and over the last decade has dedicated his time to volunteering at heart screening events, fundraising and advocating for policy changes and serving as the chairman of the Board of Directors.”

The finalists

According to The NASCAR Foundation press release, the finalists are four “NASCAR fans dedicated to providing resources and support to children have been recognized by The NASCAR Foundation as finalists for the 12th annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award. Each volunteer represents an organization committed to improving the lives of children in racing communities across the country.”

“Our four finalists have made a measurable impact on improving the lives of children, an endeavor shared by Betty Jane France,” said Mike Helton, The NASCAR Foundation chairman, via the press release. “Each finalist has exemplified an unparalleled commitment to serving children in their communities and serve as an inspiration to many. We encourage our fans to learn more about our finalists’ stories and vote for this year’s award winner.”

The other three finalists are:

• Dan Majetich, of Tempe, Ariz., a co-founder and volunteer with Nick and Kelly Children’s Heart Fund of Arizona, an organization that assists Arizona families of children with congenital heart disease and acquired heart disease. After losing their sons, Nick and Kelly, to congenital heart defects, Dan and his wife, Margaret, founded the Nick and Kelly Children’s Heart Fund in 1985.

• Tammy Garret, of Mobile, Ala., a 17-year volunteer with Rapahope Children’s Retreat Foundation of Alabama, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities to families on the childhood cancer journey through recreational support programs.

• Tracy Williams, of Jacksonville, Fla., a 17-year volunteer with the Tom Coughlin Jay Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports families that are tackling childhood cancer.

How to vote

Individuals can learn more about the award and vote once a day every day through Nov. 9 at NASCARfoundation.org/Award.

The overall winner will be announced on NASCAR’s YouTube channel on Nov. 17.

“Please vote, and vote every day,” Maccarone said.

randi@pagosasun.com