June 2, 2009
Northern Illinois student-athletes are regularly celebrated for their victories on the playing field, and the Huskies' success in the classroom - including seven straight semesters with a cumulative grade point average above 3.0 - is well-documented.
However, in many ways the Huskies' impact on the community, especially through their work with youth groups, schools and non-profit organizations, trumps all of their other accomplishments. Nearly every week throughout the school year, NIU student-athletes can be found at school fun fairs and in classrooms across DeKalb County. Following games, the Huskies offer autographs, and even free clinics. In their "spare" time, they have served meals at Hope Haven Shelter, visited the residents of the DeKalb County Nursing Home and painted a house for Habitat for Humanity.
Community service, while rarely done in the public eye, has become a staple of student-athlete life at NIU. For the student-athletes, the reward of helping others or bringing a smile to a child's face, is not just "their responsibility," it is their privilege.
"I had a great time with the people I was able to meet and help," said former NIU wide receiver Matt Simon, who organized a group of football players who served meals at Hope Haven. "We touched people's lives and that was just a great feeling. Being able to put smiles on their faces made all the time we spent worthwhile."
For his efforts in the community, Simon was one of just 22 players in the country honored this past fall as a member of the AFCA Allstate Good Works Team. The first Huskie ever named to this prestigious squad, Simon joined the rest of the team in New Orleans in January, where he was introduced to the capacity crowd in the Louisiana Superdome during the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
In part due to Simon's efforts, the Northern Illinois football team won the school's first "Challenge of Champions" competition. Points were awarded across several categories, with the greatest emphasis on community service. As the winning team, the Huskie football team earned a $1,000 prize.
While the team could have used the money to throw themselves a pizza party or buy a new plasma TV for the locker room, the Football Leadership Council instead asked the NIU administration if they could use the money to give some of the Hope Haven families a happy holiday season. In the end, they sponsored "Christmas" for three underprivileged families.
"To me, that was a great statement about what our student-athletes are all about," said NIU Associate Vice-President and Director of Athletics Jeff Compher. "They truly are role models; so much of what they do is not for publicity or attention, it's simply to help. I am inspired by them."
This year's Challenge of Champions was even more hotly contested, although the final point totals will not be in until later this summer. The Huskies sent large groups of student-athletes to the "fun fairs" at Lincoln and Tyler elementary schools, helped out at the Kishwaukee YMCA Halloween Party and participated in the NIU Cares Day. The men's soccer team spent eight Friday afternoons coaching 4-6 year old "Little Kickers" and the men's and women's golf teams went to schools as part of the "Hook a Kid on Golf" program.
"It's cool to see the kids running around in their NIU stuff, with their Huskie facepaint, really getting involved," said women's soccer player Megan Bennett of her experience. "Working with the kids is a breath of fresh air. Some of the things we do in terms of volunteering is hands off, like collecting food, so it's great to get to interact with the community so directly."
While some of the participation was local, Northern Illinois also got involved in some national campaigns. The women's track and field team took part in the American Cancer Society "Relay for Life" and the Huskie women's basketball team raised over $5,000 for the Kay Yow Foundation through the WBCA "Pink Zone" initiative. The Huskies honored breast cancer survivors at a game and broke out pink and white uniforms for the occasion.
"I've known a lot of people that have battled various forms of cancer," said NIU sophomore Marke Freeman. "It means a lot to me to be able to do something in recognition of what they went through in battling the disease."
Whether raising money for worthy causes, collecting clothes, supporting organ donation or taking the time to participate in a post-competition autograph session, Northern Illinois student-athletes are unfailingly generous.
There's no doubt NIU's "Challenge of Champions" is aptly-named. By reaching out in a myriad of ways, the Huskies are ALL champions.