Mountaineer Athletics is more than just sports. Example: The Moore, Oklahoma, tornado of May 2013. More than 1,000 miles from home, the WVUbaseball team found itself in the middle of the devastation that killed 23, injured 377, and destroyed 1,500 homes.
The team wound up at a Wal-Mart and purchased more than $4,000 worth of flashlights, batteries, diapers, towels, and other essential items for the people of Moore. They used money that had been raised for the team budget. They also encountered a woman who had no clue as to whether her children were alive. Turns out they made it.
The players then visited the scene of destruction to help homeowners clean up their yards and try to make sense of their belongings.
“I think 20 years from now when they look back at their college baseball career and the baseball tournament here at Oklahoma City, I have my doubts that they will remember the games at all, but they are going to remember what they did for the families—and the impact they’ve had on people’s lives,” Mazey said.
For those efforts, WVU baseball garnered national coverage from CNN, ESPN, the Washington Post, and several other big-name media outlets.
But the real news here is that this is no news. This sort of service and outreach has been ingrained in the DNA of WVU student-athletes long before any tornado or natural disaster.
It’s just that Oklahoma enhanced the profile of what Mountaineer athletes do when they’re not on the fields, diamonds, and courts.
Six-year-old John “Lake” Eary Jr. knows the sparkle that WVU athletes can bring to a person’s day. In July, Lake learned something important from his time with several football players who were visiting Summersville for a large-scale community service initiative. Lake learned that he’s just like them, even though he’s confined to a wheelchair and has never taken a step.
Lake was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord.
He’s had surgery on his back twice to fix scoliosis; he has never walked.
Though none of the Mountaineers visiting Nicholas County had undergone quite the hardships of little Lake, they still connected with the first-grader.
“One player showed him his knee that was operated on a couple months ago,” Lake’s father, John, said. “I was able to say to my son that having surgery doesn’t mean you are small or weak. He liked that.”
“We’ve been pushing service. We’re doing more with WVU Children’s Hospital and with speaking at camps and festivals.”
About 90 football players were taking part in the Reaching the Summit Community Service Initiative—the largest community service effort of its kind in US history.
Players spent an afternoon cutting grass, painting walls, and applying fresh tape to the gym floor at Summersville Elementary School and the Summersville Community Center.
But most of all, the players put smiles on faces.
“I was really surprised by how several of the guys took to my son,” said Eary, a 1987 WVU graduate and a financial services business owner in Summersville. “There were several of them who just kept coming to him (my son) and talking to him and shaking his hand. Some of them asked me to take their picture with him on their phones.
“They were an inspiration to him, and I think in some way he was an inspiration to some of them.”
Former WVU running back Quincy Wilson, who is now assistant director of football operations for the team, said the Mountaineer baseball team helped set a standard for pitching in to communities when players reached out to Oklahoma tornado victims.
“The baseball team kind of started that in Oklahoma,” Wilson said. “We’ve been pushing service. We’re doing more with WVU Children’s Hospital and with speaking at camps and festivals.”
Donnie Tucker, educational academic counselor for WVU Athletics, calls it “healthy competition.”
Last year, student-athletes pitched in for 5,000 community service hours. That’s double from the previous year—about 2,500 hours.
“We’ve created our own monster,” Tucker said. “It’s a good monster. I’ll guess we’ll have to keep topping ourselves each year.”
“One of the joys in life is giving back. It’s amazing watching our athletes interact with young people.” — Donnie Tucker
Athletes are even rewarded for community service annually. The team with the most community service hours is recognized, as are one male and one female with the most hours. Last year, men’s swimming won the team category while diver Liam McLaughlin and soccer’s Ali Connelly topped the male and female fields, respectively.
“It’s a competitive nature, and it’s for a good cause,” Tucker said.
Tucker fields all community outreach requests for Athletics, and demand has increased in recent years.
“We are the state flagship university, after all, so we do what we can do as often as we can,” he said. “A lot of our athletes are spending their evenings and weekends volunteering. During the day, they have classes and practice but they somehow manage to work service into their time.”
Athletics receives the most requests from WVU Children’s Hospital. Student-athletes also volunteer for countless organizations and charities such as the Special Olympics, Stepping Stones, Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity, Relay for Life, and Kiwanis Club.
There’s no plan to slow down.
“One of the joys in life is giving back,” Tucker said. “It’s amazing watching our athletes interact with young people. We’ll have someone flat on their back who can’t get up, but they’ll have a smile on their face because an athlete is there to hug them. If that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, then do you have a heart?”