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Celebrities from all over the country joined generous sponsors for the 13th annual Willie Stargell Celebrity Invitational this weekend to raise needed funds to help dialysis clinics, hospitals, and kidney transplant programs. A Bladen County man was a special guest at Saturday night’s dinner and dance at the Landfall Country Club in Wilmington.

The Willie Stargell Foundation invited Marvin Burney of Clarkton, a dialysis patient for over 20 years, to enjoy a night of elegant dining and dancing with the celebrities. During the after-dinner program, a video highlighting Burney’s struggles and victories as a dialysis patient played on the big screen. Margaret Weller-Stargell, the widow of Willie Stargell and the Foundation President, then introduced Burney to the audience. The room gave him a standing ovation.

“This was the greatest night of my life,” Burney said. “When my wife Marsha and I first walked into the country club, we knew we were somewhere very special, but the night got even better from there.

“So many famous celebrities shook my hand and congratulated me on my longevity as a dialysis patient,” Burney continued, “and I kept thinking that I was the one thrilled to be in their presence and here they were telling me how much I inspired them. It was unreal. It was absolutely awesome!”

The average life expectancy (according to national statistics) when a person starts on dialysis is between five and seven years. Burney started dialysis treatments 20 years and seven months ago; he has also had two short-lived kidney transplants during that time. To date, Burney has had 2,592 dialysis treatments, and he currently does his dialysis at home with the help of his wife.

“I’ve been lucky,” Burney said. “There is a reason why I have defied the odds and lived so long on dialysis. I don’t know what that reason is, but I do know I’m very, very lucky. The Willie Stargell celebration reminded me again just how lucky I am to be alive to experience something this wonderful.”

The Foundation is named for Willie “Pops” Stargell, a professional baseball player who crushed 475 career home runs during his 21-year baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-1982). An intimidating left-handed hitter, Stargell hit seven of the 16 balls ever knocked completely out of Forbes Field. He helped the Pirates capture two World Series titles and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. The last five years of his life, Stargell was a dialysis patient and lived in his wife’s hometown of Wilmington, NC. The dialysis unit at New Hanover Medical Regional Center is named the “Willie Stargell Dialysis Unit.” Mr. Stargell died in 2001.

Since 2002, the Willie Stargell Foundation has hosted a special weekend and invited celebrities from the athletic and entertainment fields to Wilmington. The weekend includes a celebrity autograph session, an auction, dinner and dancing, and a golf tournament.

Last year, the Foundation donated $100,000 to New Hanover Regional Medical Center, DaVita Dialysis, Duke University Kidney Transplant Center, Carolinas Medical Kidney Transplant Center, East Carolina University Kidney Transplant Program, and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) Kidney Center.

Celebrities who attended this year included Franco Harris (NFL), Ralph Sampson (NBA), Jose Alvarez (MLB), Frank Connelly (President of the Pittsburgh Pirates), Ray Durham (MLB), Ed “Too Tall” Jones (NFL), Brian Jordan (MLB and NFL), Al Oliver (MLB), Richard Roundtree (actor), Greg Vaughn (MLB), Tony Womack (MLB), Andrew Givens (NFL), Harvey Glance (US Olympic Team), Sonny Jackson (MLB), Cliff Levingston (NBA), Buddy Lewis (actor), Grady Little (MLB coach), Greg Lloyd (NFL), Jim Nemeth (NFL), Sydney Penny (actress), Larry Rivers (Harlem Globetrotters), Russ Rogers (college coach), Jerry Royster (MLB), Dominic Santana (actor), Rennie Stennent (MLB), Dave Stewart (MLB), Art Still (NFL), George Williams (college coach), Donnell Woolford (NFL), Lacey Agnew (LPGA), Heather Angell (LPGA), James Arceneaux (entertainment executive), Cornelius Bennett (NFL), Travis Best (NBA), John Bunting (NFL), David Carpenter (actor), Luis Clemente (The Roberto Clemente Foundation), Phillip Crosby (NFL), Arthur Culbreath (US Olympic Team), Vida Blue (MLB), and Ozzie Smith (MLB). The Cochran Law Firm of Atlanta was the presenting sponsor for the event.

Burney said he was thrilled to meet Franco Harris, and the NFL star spent about 15 minutes talking to him. “Franco’s a super person,” Burney said, “and despite how famous he is, he talked to me just like I was one of the guys.” Burney added that his wife, a long-time University of Virginia fan, was ecstatic to meet basketball star Ralph Sampson.

Frank Connelly, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, met and talked with the Burneys for a while. He invited the Bladen couple to come to Pittsburgh and watch a Pirates home game with him in the owner’s box next spring. “Mr. Connelly is genuinely a super nice guy,” Burney said, “and his invitation was so cool.” Until a few years ago, Burney had coached in a youth baseball program for 27 years.

“Along with raising and donating so much money to help dialysis patients in her husband‘s memory, Mrs. Stargell is an extremely gracious hostess,” Burney concluded. “She and her sister, Frances Weller (who is WECT-TV’s news anchor and a member of the Board of Directors for the Foundation), made me — a simple, country man — feel like a star Saturday night. It was the honor of a lifetime, and I will never forget it.”

For more information about the Willie Stargell Foundation, go to www.WillieStargellFoundation.org.

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