Dix Hills man returns from fundraising tour

Family and friends greet John Michael Nitti as Family and friends greet John Michael Nitti as he arrives to La Mela Ristorante in Manhattan, following his almost 10,000 mile bike ride across the country. (August 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

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John Michael Nitti removed his bicycle helmet as he crossed the finish line on Little Italy's Mulberry Street, concluding a 9,862-mile cross-country trip for charity.

Nitti, of Dix Hills, traveled for 216 days on his solo journey from east to west and back, going through 35 states. His trip, which ended Saturday night, helped raise more than $24,000 for the Marty Lyons Foundation, which helps critically and terminally ill children, most of whom have cancer.

"I'm really excited. They [the foundation] need about one hundred grand per year to operate, so we're providing a solid chunk," said Nitti, 24, whose father, John Nitti, played with Marty Lyons on the New York Jets. "Doing it for this foundation was the easiest decision of the trip."

"There's Eastern Time, there's Central Time, there's Mountain and Pacific Time, and there's Nitti time," the elder Nitti said proudly to a small gathering of friends and family who welcomed home his son.

The younger Nitti set out on Feb. 27 from North Carolina. The first cold weeks on the road were the toughest, he said.

A Cornell University business graduate who played football in college, Nitti was in good condition but not a trained cyclist, and only had six weeks of practice. He slept in motels, in camping grounds, and on the beds and couches of friends and strangers along the way. He said he made heavy use of couchsurfing.org, an online social network of travelers who give each other a free place to stay in lieu of hotels.

Nitti had a couple of close calls -- colliding with cars twice, and once almost riding into a herd of elk crossing a narrow mountain road in the Rockies.

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"The sun goes down just as I go over the mountain, so the whole way down was in the dark. I came around one corner and I heard hoofs on the pavement. I couldn't see them, but I slammed on the brakes," he said.

But he also got a great deal of help from the people he encountered. A manager of a Red Lobster restaurant in Arkansas told Nitti about his 3-year-old son who almost died of cancer, and whose recovery began right around the time he went to Walt Disney World through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The manager gave Nitti his meal for free and called other Red Lobster restaurants in the state to make sure they did the same.

Lyons handed Nitti a lion-shaped foundation trophy for his accomplishment in a small private ceremony at La Mela, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. As Nitti made his speech, saying how he was glad to have nearly reached his target of $20,000, Todd Mendoza, a family friend, stood up and said that he was pledging another $5,000, drawing wild cheers from everyone.

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