TAMPA, FL — Within minutes of the start of Thursday night's sixth annual, sold-out Sneaker Soiree, the event had evolved into the Poignance Prom.
Around the time the entrees arrived, so did USF softball player — and current cancer patient — Meredith Bissette, who emerged from behind the curtain of the TPepin Hospitality Centre's main stage in the night's most surprising cameo.
Minutes later, Bissette gave way to 78-year-old local high school football coaching icon Billy Turner, accompanied by a walker and rousing ovation.
"I'm in the fourth quarter, and I'm the underdog," Turner, battling merkel cell carcinoma the past four years, told the crowd of roughly 450. "But I don't give up easily. I may have to go overtime on this thing, but we'll beat it."
And so kicked off the de facto Oscars night of the bay area sports scene, put on by the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. Amid a parodying game-show theme, perseverance and performers were recognized and community benevolence was honored, with a few off-the-cuff cracks from Hall of Fame golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez interspersed.
But Bissette and Turner teamed to nearly steal the night.
A video tribute to Bissette already had played, and teammates Cassidy Boyle and Lauren Evans already had arrived on stage — presumably to accept the award on her behalf — when the sophomore walked out from behind the curtain.
With the logistical help of TBSC special events director Claire Lessinger, Bissette and her dad, Greg, secretly had flown into Tampa on Wednesday night. Thursday marked the first time she had seen a teammate since she had been diagnosed with chordoma cancer the first week of April.
Buoyed by her battle, USF went on a school-record 23-game win streak and ultimately qualified for the NCAA tournament.
"It was just incredible, seeing her (the first time) in forever," Boyle said. "I don't really know if there's really words for it except pure excitement."
The chordoma cancer is gone, Bissette said, but she's still battling a giant-cell bone tumor and aneurysmal bone cyst confined to her lower back.
"I was already crying (backstage), so I cried more, and it was just great," Bissette said of the impromptu reunion. "It was overwhelming joy and happiness."
Other recipients Thursday included Sickles High linebacker Jake Hampton, winner of the Freddie Solomon Moral Courage Award. Hampton earned a scholarship to Gardner-Webb despite playing most of his prep career while managing diabetes.
Academy of the Holy Names runner Lizzie Dolan was presented the Under Armour "I Will" Award for her efforts to raise money in the battle against pediatric cancer. Dolan organized a 5K race that raised $47,000 for Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
2016 Tampa Bay Sneaker Soiree Awards and Videos
Lee Roy Selmon Lifetime Achievement Award: Chi Chi Rodriguez
Freddie Solomon Moral Courage Award: Jake Hampton, Sickles High School Linebacker (earned scholarship while playing with diabetes)
Sports Community Heroes: USF softball player Meredith Bissette (cancer survivor), retired high school football coach Billy Turner (cancer survivor)
Under Armour "I Will" Award: Lizzie Dolan, Academy of the Holy Names Cross Country runner (organized 5K race that raised $47,000 for Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg)
USF Moment of the Year: Football team's win vs. Temple (clinched bowl eligibility)
Rays Moment of the Year: Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier winning Platinum and Gold Glove awards
Bucs Moment of the Year: Quarterback Jameis Winston winning NFL Rookie of the Year Award as voted by fans
Lightning Moment of the Year: Round 2 of Stanley Cup playoffs vs. Islanders
Sports Community Moment of the Year: 2016 NCAA Men's Frozen Four at Amalie Arena