March 24, 2011
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa is doing more than winning football games during a three-year stretch that boasts unprecedented on-field success.
Like all collegiate sports, football is known for its “by-the-numbers” methodology. The 100-yard war, playing all 60 minutes, three yards and a cloud of dust…the list goes on and on. At the Hayden Fry Football Complex, the past three years are represented by numbers three, 28 and 3,430:
Three consecutive bowl victories for the first time in school history; 28 victories (an average of more than nine per season); and 3,430 community service hours. If that last number doesn’t take your breath away, it should. Since May 17, 2008, the UI football program has participated in 59 service projects and averaged more than 1,143 hours of volunteer time a year.
“We have an extensive service program that provides our players a great opportunity to give back to the community,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “These outreach opportunities not only provide support to the community, but they enable the players to take on leadership roles while learning valuable life lessons.”
Chigozie Ejiasi was named Iowa’s first director of player development in September, 2008. Ejiasi assists Hawkeye players in their transition from high school to college. One of those ways is by coordinating community service efforts.
“We bring kids here to get their education and play football, but more importantly, we want them to grow up and become better men,” Ejiasi said. “That’s what drives this program. We feel they’re able to grow and become better men because of giving back.”
Of the ventures, the one drawing the largest number of participants is the University of Iowa Dance Marathon with 60 players attending and signing autographs on Feb. 6, 2010. From May 17-20, 20 players spent a combined 640 hours in Cedar Rapids, completing a project called “Rebuilding our Backyard.” So far during the 2010-11 academic year, the players have done six events benefitting the Make-a-Wish Foundation, UI Children’s Hospital, Cardon Children’s Medical Center (Arizona), University of Iowa Dance Marathon, Iowa City VA Medical Center and DeGowin Blood Center.
“It’s rewarding. Nothing beats the feeling you get when you’ve helped someone else,” said UI freshman linebacker James Morris. In 13 games (six starts) Morris compiled 70 tackles — fourth-most on the team.
“We bring kids here to get their education and play football, but more importantly, we want them to grow up and become better men. That’s what drives this program. We feel they’re able to grow and become better men because of giving back.”
Director of Player Development
Hours after Iowa’s 37-7 win over Eastern Illinois on Sept. 4, Morris and the 31 other first-year players signed autographs for Make-a-Wish. Less than seven months into his college career, Morris has also participated in a blood drive, handed Valentine cards to patients at the VA Medical Center, cleaned kitchens and completed other chores for families at Ronald McDonald House, and visited patients at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He is in the process of getting a job at a youth leadership program in Cedar Rapids.
“If I visit a hospital, it makes the patient’s day, but it makes me feel good about myself as well,” Morris said. “We have the ability to make others feel a little better and help them have a good day, but it makes us feel good, too. As athletes in Iowa City, we’re in a bubble. Going to volunteer is a nice wake-up call to show that it’s a different world out there.”
At 6-foot-1, 275 pounds, UI defensive tackle Mike Daniels is an imposing force on a football field. With 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and three quarterback hurries, Daniels is not popular with opposing offensive linemen. He is well-known at a place called The Spot on Foster Road in Iowa City. Every Wednesday evening, Daniels and as many as seven teammates mentor underprivileged youth in a Christian-based environment at Parkview Church. The motto of The Spot is love God, love others, serve the world.
“It’s like raising a family,” Daniels said. “You have to be a husband, a father and succeed in your professional life. Instead of taking time to rest some days, I volunteer. That’s important to me.”
The time Daniels and other Hawkeyes spend at The Spot is not included in the football program’s community service hours because they volunteer on their own time. Daniels became aware of The Spot from Vernon Jackson, a former Hawkeye defensive lineman.
“Coming from a similar background, I know the positives that a program like this can bring,” Daniels said. “They really look up to us. This is Iowa and they have a lot of respect for us and admire us. They get excited about seeing us on TV. I wish I had something like The Spot when I was growing up.”
The kids that are counseled by Daniels are rewarded for sportsmanship, good behavior and remembering a weekly Bible verse.
One of the most frequent beneficiaries of the Hawkeye football players is the UI Children’s Hospital. Emily Hazelwood, a child-life specialist, works with Ejiasi to schedule players coming to the hospital to play video and board games and do crafts and cooking activities with patients. Hazelwood says a handful of Hawkeyes come over on multiple days every week.
“It makes the patients feel so special,” Hazelwood said. “Iowa football players are celebrities and to have a famous person visit you in the hospital lifts their spirits and makes everything feel normal. Getting to visit and play with a celebrity can boost their spirits.”
Most of the service events are scheduled in spring when demands on the players have lessened. Ejiasi said having the players in front of the community and supporting the people who support them on game day is important. But with so many prospects in the Iowa City area, it is also vital to respect the player’s time.
“There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t see,” said Ejiasi, who has a 3 ½-inch binder filled with requests. “We have freshmen doing things, we have sophomores doing things, we have juniors, seniors — eventually everybody on the team is going to participate in these events we have throughout the year. Players get into a groove and understand that this is part of being a student-athlete at the University of Iowa.”
The Hawkeyes have five volunteer projects from April 17 to May 8. They include Day of Caring (April 17), Camp Courageous visit (April 23), Wheelchair basketball game (April 29), NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Run/Walk (April 30) and Ronald McDonald House Run/Walk (May 8).
For Camp Courageous Day, campers are bused from Monticello to Kinnick Stadium where senior players and Ferentz sign autographs, give tours of the stadium and play with campers on the game field.
“This is an incredible experience that the campers never forget,” said Charlie Becker, executive director of Camp Courageous. “When it comes to character and integrity, I have seen nothing but the very, very best from the University of Iowa football program. To see someone athletically gifted to take time from their busy schedule to be with campers is a life-altering experience.”
By playing in front of a national audience every weekend in the fall, millions of people recognize the UI as one of the elite college football programs in the land. When it comes to serving others while no one is looking, the Hawkeyes have few peers.