BY DARREN REESE
SUN SPORTS EDITOR
Scott Niswonger promised a month ago that this year's Niswonger Children's Hospital Celebrity Golf Classic would be the biggest in the history of the event.
He certainly wasn't lying. The star power of the celebrity line-up for Monday's tournament was brighter, and as a result, the event blew away even Niswonger's expectations.
Coupled with a benefit concert by country music star Darius Rucker the night before the tournament, Niswonger and his friends raised over $700,000 for the Niswonger Children's Hospital in Johnson City.
"It's been amazing what we've been able to do in just the last few years," Niswonger said. "We went from $250,000 two years ago, to 389 (thousand) to something over 700 this time."
"Who knows where we will be next year. A lot of people have taken an understanding that this is all for the kids and how important this is. Children's hospitals don't make money, so every penny we raise goes directly to the care of those children."
NFL Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith and Dan Marino highlighted a group of celebrities that also included the likes of Virginia Tech head football coach Frank Beamer, 1995 U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin, and former Tennessee coaches Phillip Fulmer and Bruce Pearl, to name a few.
Across the board, each one of them went out of their way to express what an honor it was to be part of such a worthy cause.
"Scott and his family and his foundation have done wonders for medical care here in upper east Tennessee," said Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith.
"We have to opportunity to raise a lot of money for the kids, and I'm just excited that they asked me to be apart of it."
Rucker's concert at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center Sunday drew a near-capacity crowd, and was proceeded by a fundraising dinner at the General Morgan Inn and a ball drop from WINGS helicopter.
Rucker gained fame in the 1990's as the front-man for the group Hootie & the Blowfish, and has since reinvented himself as a country music artist. He was the Country Music Association's New Artist of the Year in 2009, and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry late last year.
Rucker has been involved with St. Jude's Hospital through his annual "Darius Rucker and Friends" benefit concert and golf tournament.
The Niswonger Children's Hospital is one of only five St. Jude affiliates in the world
"I just always thought St. Jude did an amazing job of not turning anyone away and helping everyone that they could," Rucker said.
"I went to visit there one time and decided that I was going to do anything to help them that I can. It's always a no-brainer for St. Jude."
Funds from this year's Niswonger Golf Classic will be used to purchase syringe pumps for the hospital. The pumps are used to deliver precise doses of medication through IV lines.
The cost of each one is approximately $5,000, and the hospital needs over 100 of them.
"I think we all have a soft spot in our heart for children," Pavin said. "This is my fourth time now (playing in the tournament) and it's getting bigger and better. It's a fun event. And obviously a lot of money goes to the kids. That's what's important."