Rhyming in the rain

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Thursday, July 24, 2008 | Annie Allison | Categories:
Hornell, N.Y. — Leapin’ Lanny! After hours of work grooming the field after a harsh rainstorm, the Dodgers had to turn in their rakes and resign themselves to a rain-out in their NYCBL ball game vs. the Elmira Pioneers. As the blue tarps came out, so did Lanny Poffo, former WWF wrestler and current non-smoking advocate. Poffo achieved fame in the 1980s, acting as the poet laureate of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE). He served that post from 1985 to 1989, composing and reciting poems before each bout. Poffo started out his pro wrestling career as “Leaping Lanny,” known as a good guy who produced a book of wrestling poetry entitled “Leaping Lanny: Wrestling with Rhyme.” In 1989, Poffo became “The Genius” to WWF fans, donning a cap and gown and antagonizing audiences with his pseudo-intellectual manner. Later that year, he went up against Hulk Hogan on WWF Saturday Night Lights and won. These days, “The Genius” travels around the continent teaching youngsters about the importance of non-smoking. His wrestling background gets youth interested and opens the door to a more important message. “When I go to the kids, I use wrestling as the gateway because a lot of the kids are wrestling fans. Then I’m honest with them,” explained Poffo. “I admitted that I?did steroids in 1989. I?was going from “Leaping Lanny” to “The Genius” and this was my big break and I’m sorry I did it. When I finally wrestled Hulk Hogan on NBC, I?beat him. Only, I didn’t beat him, he let me win. “I couldn’t beat him to the bathroom after the match if it was real, and if I sat on his lap, my feet wouldn’t touch the floor,” he joked. “It’s just the way it is.” Poffo travels to schools and kids’ programs around North America with a power point presentation and his book of anti-smoking poems, Limericks from the Heart (and Lungs!), winner of the Jarsonbeck Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature. He became an author after the life-changing experience of meeting the late Shel Silverstein, author of such children’s classics as Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree. Silverstein encouraged Poffo to speak out about what’s important to him, and for the last couple decades, Leaping Lanny has. “It was a blessing. He yelled at me the second time I met him. Why is this crazy old man yelling at me?” Poffo said he asked at the time. “He’s not a crazy old man. He knew I?was a lazy young man. And that was his way of saying, ‘Wake up, get mad and speak. We’ve got the greatest country in the world. We’ve got freedom of speech. Speak.’ “So I reached the zenith of my popularity and on the way back I looked in the mirror, and I said, ‘Self, you’ve drank from the silver chalice of success, and now it’s time to put away the needle. I?had a couple of side effects and it scared me, and I just don’t think lying to the kids is any good. “Now I’m fine, I’m 53. In the time I?have left, I want to be a positive peer pressure. There’s enough negative peer pressure, kids saying, ‘Come on, you’ve got to smoke this.’ So I?just want to make a small difference. The kids have been very, very receptive. If I’ve made the difference in one child, then the trip from Florida was not in vain. I’m very dear friends with Reality Check and STTAC. I’m hoping we can do more in the future.” Though Poffo didn’t get to throw out the first pitch in the ill-fated game and forgot to play his hard-practiced version of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ on his harmonica, Poffo still put on a show. Poffo recited six anti-smoking limericks, followed by a custom-written limerick for the Hornell Dodgers. He spoke about the importance of not smoking and the down side of peer pressure. After his speech was done, fans swarmed around him for autographs and to get a chance to talk with him about his work. The former pro wrestler, who came to the Dodgers’ field clad in a Cubs’ jersey, has taken his message to his home town of Chicago, Ill., California, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and many other places in the U.S. Plus, he spends countless hours in his home state of Florida to spread the word on anti-smoking. Two years ago, he was a featured guest at Sports Night at the Knights of Columbus in Hornell. His work with children and anti-drug advocacy brought him back to the Canisteo Valley yet again. The Dodgers’ game Wednesday was co-sponsored by Reality Check and the STTAC (Southern Tier Tobacco Awareness Community Partnership), which both work for tobacco control in New York State. “I work with youth and they work with the community,” said Reality Check’s Sherry DeGaetano. “We both sponsored the game together to pool resources and get a bigger crowd. We tried to come up with something that would bolster some attendance and be fun for everybody. “We were racking our brains and I said, let’s call Jim Dagon because he always does Sports Night and knows how to get a hold of people. So we went through this list of baseball players, but they all cost a lot of money and they aren’t always easy to work with. But there is this guy and he’s a wrestler, but he’s really neat and a lot of fun. Totally, as an afterthought, he realized the connection and said, ‘You know, he wrote this book about tobacco.’ and I?thought, ‘Perfect!’ “The most important thing is that its a name people know and it’s a great message and he’s great and so nice. It just made more sense.” The anti-tobacco organizations work to do two things: Raise awareness about working with the youth about how tobacco companies market to kids and focus works with the community issues like smoke-free houses and smoke-free parks. STTAC and Reality Check go to Elmira Jackals’ games every year to raise awareness and have been successful in getting both the Jackals and the Hornell Dodgers to sign an agreement that they will not accept tobacco sponsorship money for their programs. When Poffo is not traversing about the land to help the cause, he works in Florida as a certified credit counselor, consolidating people’s unsecured debt and helping them get on the right track. His main goal, however, is to prevent kids from taking up smoking and helping current smokers to quit. “Too many of my wrestling colleagues have died early from preventable dissipations of all kinds,” writes Poffo on his Web site, www.lannypoffo.com. “This book is my attempt to “catch 'em young.” I hope concerned parents will start reading the limericks in the front of the book as a healthy alternative to the bedtime story. Poffo has also written poems for the Jerry Lewis Telethon and the Special Olympics in addition to his composition for the Hornell Dodgers. Though they did not get to see even one inning, the Dodgers’ fans are sure to always remember the rainy night they came to see a ball game at Maple City Park and were treated to poetry from a former WWF wrestler instead. ### Web Comments: "Thank you Annie Allison and the Hornell Tribune for helping to raise awareness about tobacco! I would also like to thank Jimmy Dagon, Shery Degaetano and Dave Prete for all the hospitality they showed me. Thanks for the great turn-out in Maple City Park. I hope to see you again! Lanny Poffo: www.lannypoffo.com "
The Evening Tribune
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