Tracy Morgan
Credit: Paul Mobley

“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up!”

It’s been 26 years since Jim Valvano — only a month before he’d die of cancer — delivered those powerful words during his inspiring speech at the inaugural ESPYS. And it’s a message that has always stuck with Tracy Morgan. “I will never forget it,” the comedian shares. “Whenever you make someone laugh, cry, and think in one day, you’ve lived a full day. I remember where I was when he gave that speech; everyone around me was crying. That man was the bravest.”

Morgan is now proud to follow in Valvano’s footsteps and do his part as the host of this year’s “Oscars of sports.” And as much as the Saturday Night Live alum is looking forward to talking about the sad state of his beloved New York Knicks (“As it says in the Bible, this too shall pass”) and meeting some of the best athletes in the world, Morgan wants the true focus to be on the show’s mission to help fund cancer research through Valvano’s V Foundation.

“It’s going to be an incredible night celebrating all of the great things these athletes have done, the thrill of victory, but we can’t let the most important thing from that night get away from us: fighting to end cancer,” he shares. “My ex-wife passed away from cancer three years ago, so when I go on that stage, that will be for my ex-wife. That will be for my kids. That will be for your family members. That will be for everyone who passed away from cancer. I’m taking a lot of people on that stage with me that night. I have to do something on this Earth before I leave here and I want to champion that cause.”

Morgan famously had his own run in with death. In June 2014, he was severely injured in a crash that left his friend and fellow comedian James McNair dead. Still dealing with the mental and physical repercussions from that incident, Morgan has gained one thing from the deadly accident that he will carry with him into the ESPYS: purpose.

“We really have to understand why we’re here: To help people in this world who are suffering,” says an emotional Morgan. “I know why God saved my life in that accident years ago, God saved my life to help. There’s only one way out of the darkness, and you have to put yourself in service to others. We have to make good for all those with that deadly disease. We have to make it so suffering stops — we must. Maybe we can change someone’s world. That is what Mr. Valvano was talking about that night.”

The ESPYS airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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