By Bob Narang

Keith Melaragno always cherished any opportunity to pledge assistance to anyone in need throughout the Chicago and Midwest region.

After providing 1,000s of charitable gifts and donations for young kids, student athletes and adults over the last three-plus decades, Melaragno experienced the other side of giving on a cold and snowy January day this past Sunday.

Through his role as Pepsi’s Senior Director of Retail – Midwest, Melaragno jumped at any chance to present sporting tickets, concerts tickets or Pepsi products to brighten an individual’s day or help a charity raise money to help enhance the lives of others.

But on this day Melaragno was the main honoree, as he was surprised with the Making A Difference On AND Off The Field award presented by Buddy’s HELPERS and the PepsiCo Showdown Series. The 61-year-old was presented with a $500 check to donate to his favorite charity, the Notre Dame Club, and an American Airlines gift card to use in the near future to create some lifelong memories of his own.

The Oak Park resident was then stunned to learn a new $10,000 annual grant for student athletes called “The KEITH” was created and will be presented each year on Feb. 27. That day is Melaragno’s birthday, and it’s also National Retro Day.

One thing that will never go out of style is the opportunity to giveback – something Melaragno showed through his actions at Pepsi.

“I had absolutely no inkling at all about the event,” said Melaragno, who was surprised by current and past PepsiCo Showdown student athletes talking about the impact the event had in their lives and how it’s helped countless communities and families over the years. “It was great to hear the kids talk. It was a total surprise, just an incredible day.”

Melaragno, a 1981 University of Notre Dame graduate, is set to retire on Feb. 19 after working 35 years for Pepsi. Over the years, he’s provided Cubs tickets to raffle off at charity events, helped kids sit in the dugout at Wrigley Field and even engineered a meet-and-greet with the Jonas Brothers.

The Ohio native admitted he was overcome by emotions at the surprise event in his honor. Melaragno, who is known in the Midwest as “Pepsi Keith,” said the honor was a perfect way to help him through a difficult year.

His mother passed away last April, and he also suffered a mild heart attack.

“I thrive on really making things happen for people, whether it’s grabbing Cubs tickets or donating a couple of cases of Pepsi for a charity, I was the go-to guy,” Melaragno said. “I got used to doing it, and it made me feel good.

“My job at Pepsi gave me the ability to touch people’s lives. So for me, what an incredible day to think that I’ve done something good.

“I’m truly blessed to be in a position to do that, and Pepsi gave me that opportunity. It was nice to have the kids thank me. And it’s just really cool to think a grant will be sitting out there with my name on it for somebody to use.”

Angelina Moore, a Maine South graduate and current junior at DePaul University, praised Melaragno for his donations and work with the PepsiCo Showdown.

“We were able to show joy and bring a joy to a lot of kids in the Chicago area off the field,” Moore said. “It was amazing to see a smile on somebody else’s face, and Keith deserves a great thank you for helping to make all of that possible.”

Lyons senior Cam Labbato and his soccer teammates organized a food drive for Lakeview Food Pantry last summer. He credits Melaragno for inspiring him to make a difference on and off the field.

“The Pepsi Showdown has inspired me to get out there and do things for the community,” Labbato said.  “There’s no greater feeling than helping someone.”

Also speaking at the surprise event were: Nicole Powell, Sandburg alum; Azury Sanchez, Solorio alum; Faith Davies, Glenbard East alum; and Al Perez, Washington coach. Kaylie Dahms (Plainfield Central), Jonny Rodriguez (Thornton) and Lalo Rodriguez (Washington alum) helped present the awards.

You can CLICK HERE to listen to their speeches honoring Melaragno in front of friends and media. To watch Sean Lewis’ feature report on the WGN News, you may CLICK HERE.

Bio on reporter: Bob Narang has been covering prep recruiting and sports for the past 26 years. His work also appears in the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald and the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.