Penguins' Rupp rallies around a cause

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, April 7, 2011

When Mike and Christi Rupp read about how Nicole Cleland lost her 7-year-old daughter and unborn child after a December head-on collision with a driver police said was drunk, it didn't just move them. It made them want to make a difference.

"This one stuck with us," said Rupp, a Penguins forward. "A few days later, my wife was saying, 'What can we do to help?' "

The Rupps spearheaded a fundraiser in which Mike will join Penguins defensemen Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik with Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez and pitcher Paul Maholm for an autograph session at 6 p.m. Monday at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins sold out an allotted 300 wristbands for the event at $35 apiece in about 45 minutes Wednesday.

They will have a special guest: Cleland, 38, of South Park has received permission to attend the fundraiser with her husband, Mark. Cleland has been in a South Hills rehabilitation facility, where she uses a wheelchair but is learning to walk again after an accident in which her hip and pelvis were pulverized.

Cleland said insurance covers a 100-day stay at the rehabilitation center that ends April 16, regardless of whether she is finished with rehab.

She said the family is going to have to move out of their townhouse because she can no longer climb stairs. Cleland called the fundraiser "overwhelming, to say the least."

"I think it's amazing that people have come forward and really wanted to do something just to help us," she said. "It's overwhelming to think that there's that many people out there that care. It's really been a roller coaster. You never think it's going to reach somebody like the Penguins and Pirates."

Cleland was en route to pick up her husband from his cooking job when, police said, her Toyota Camry was hit head-on by a car driven by Travis Isiminger, 23, of Holbrook, Greene County. Isiminger faces 16 charges, including third-degree murder and homicide by vehicle.

Police said Isiminger's blood-alcohol level was .219 percent, more than twice the legal limit of .08. The crash killed the Clelands' daughter, Lexa, a second-grader in the South Park School District. Two weeks after the crash, Cleland learned she had miscarried. The Clelands are suing Isiminger and Hofbrauhaus, the South Side bar where Isiminger told police he had been drinking before the crash.

Rupp is involved in charity work and wanted to help the Clelands. He volunteers with Ronald McDonald House and joined teammate Max Talbot and former Pirates first baseman Sean Casey in raising relief funds for Haitian orphans this past summer.

"We have a responsibility to do more than just play hockey," Rupp said. "You get a platform when playing, and I think it's important to use it in some way, shape or form to do something. You know the community is so great with sports teams but also a community that will reach out to others. That's what this whole thing is — to alleviate any burdens and give them financial help so they focus on the real healing that needs to be done."

The Rupps enlisted the help of Jill Shipley, the Penguins' director for special events and fan development. She contacted Cleland's best friend, Liz Rapp, who had requested help from the Penguins for a fundraiser at the South Park Clubhouse in late January that raised $12,000.

"That's the kind of people they are," Shipley said of the Rupps. "You hear stories of professional athletes and want to believe they are grounded — and they are."

The Rupps turned to Maholm and his wife, Jessica, whom they met through Penguins and Pirates volunteer chaplain Brad Henderson.

"Anything to help and raise money to take some of the stress off them," Maholm said. "You can't fix it, but you can do whatever you can to help them get through it."

Cleland said baseball was something Mark and Lexa shared, that their television was often tuned to Disney Channel or ESPN. Mark Cleland also is a passionate Penguins fan, and his wife counts herself a fan of both franchises — especially for what they are doing to help her family.

"I think it will be helpful to meet some of the players and take our minds off the stress of things, for a little while anyway," Nicole Cleland said. "I'm looking forward to it. This is the first time I'll be able to head out of here. It'll be nice to be out in reality for a little while.

"Everything that has happened since this started has been amazing."

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