By Chris Gosier, Special Projects Writer, Fordham University
Every spring for the past four years, Fordham University’s football players have taken part in off-season exercises that are challenging, immersive and designed to build team unity. Like summer and fall practices, these are mandatory. But they have nothing to do with wind sprints, drills, or directives. Rather, the players must complete at least two community service projects, learning the value of helping the less fortunate while also absorbing an ethic of service that ultimately benefits the team.
“I think it is a part of the culture that we have established within our program. A big part of that culture is selflessness” and not putting oneself above others, says head coach Andrew Breiner.
The service regimen was begun by former head coach Joe Moorhead, who was hired in 2011 and resigned in December 2015 to take a position at Penn State. Breiner plans to expand the team’s service program as new opportunities arise. “There's room for growth in all areas of the program, and community service and volunteerism is one of them,” he says.
The players are given a list of community service projects compiled by the school’s director of football operations, Greg Marmaros, but have the option of choosing one of their own. “Most guys go above and beyond those two (service projects), and half the team members do at least three,” says Marmaros.
This year, as in prior years, several players signed up to partner with students at the Bronx campus of Eagle Academy for Young Men, in the borough’s Tremont neighborhood. Players helped with homework assignments, played sports with the students, and served as mentors over the course of several weekends.
Among the volunteers was George Dawson, a junior linebacker who attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, where he was recognized for both his academic and athletic achievements. “It kind of made me feel I could relate to the kids,” he says of his Bronx roots. “The parents, the kids look up to me.”
Engaging with the students allowed him to share both his experience and his knowledge to help steer them on the road to achievement, says Dawson, who is majoring in economics. “Keep working hard and eventually it will pay off,” he tells his mentees. Dawson, too, benefits: “It makes me play better just knowing that there are fans out there watching.”
Another successful service outing came in mid-April when several players participated in the Fordham Relay for Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The players raised more than $1,200 in a day, more than twice their initial goal.
Aside from giving back to the Bronx community and helping players maintain a sense of perspective, the service projects have another component: helping the team win. Breiner says that the projects help the players to bond, and that this form of team building has helped contribute toward the team’s successes over the last two seasons. The Rams went 12-2 in 2013 and 11-3 in 2014, when they won the Patriot League for the first time since 2007.
The service work is uplifting for players, particularly when they see their presence making an impact on local middle and high school students, says Breiner, who volunteered in local schools as an undergraduate football player at Lock Haven University. “They come back with big smiles on their faces and talk about how cool it was and how much they enjoyed it, particularly that core of guys that just keeps signing up,” he says. “I think when they walk into the room and they have the football jersey on, those young boys and girls look up to them, and that makes you feel good. Every time they go out and they volunteer their time, they come back feeling rewarded.”
With additional reporting by Rich Khavkine.