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Winning when nobody's watching

by John Bach

No scoreboard. No fans. No stats.

For student-athletes at the University of Cincinnati, often the most meaningful performance of the year takes place off the court, away from the field and miles from the nearest track or golf course. For Bearcat players who regularly volunteer in the community, it is a chance to make a difference in the lives of people, mostly youth, throughout the city.

Whether hosting Special Olympians on campus, handing out care packages to the homeless on the streets or buying Christmas presents for area poor families, UC jocks are growing accustomed to thinking of others and putting those thoughts into action. They brainstorm outreach ideas, organize activities and even raise their own funds. Then they get to work.

"This is definitely an opportunity to give back," says senior Evan Sanford, Bus '08, a relief pitcher on the UC baseball team. For him, community projects allow athletes to team up in a whole new way, whether that's mentoring children or putting on a clothing drive for the needy. The scholar right-hander says he and teammates never tire of the way "kids look up to you and value what you have to say just because you are a Bearcat."

The outreach covers every sport. UC football players, for example, drop by area elementary schools to play with youngsters at recess. And what fourth-grader wouldn't want 314-pound tackle Kalil El Amin on his kickball team? The athletes have fun with the children, but they also read to them, interact with them in the classroom and stress the importance of education.

Soccer players trade uniforms for aprons and whip up meals at the Ronald McDonald House. Stepping off the field and into the kitchen is their way of reaching out to families whose children are undergoing serious medical procedures at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

Bearcat golfers help underprivileged children pick out new school clothes and help raise funds for the Assistance League of Greater Cincinnati's Operation School Bell program. UC golf coach Janet Carl says volunteering in the community helps her athletes understand, even long after they leave campus, that they'll accomplish much more in life when they work together to solve problems.

"One of the responsibilities that I have to my athletes is to make certain that they become well-rounded human beings," she says. "It is extremely important to me for them to give back."

Coach Carl recalls one golfer in particular who was astonished at a little boy's gratitude when she volunteered to help him pick out new school clothes. The boy wanted a belt that was much too big for him. As it turns out, he had never had a new belt and was so used to his brother's hand-me-downs that he thought he better choose one his older brother could wear first.

"She looked at him and said, 'Today you are getting your own belt,'" Carl explains. "And he just looked at her and said, 'You mean I get to keep this?' You can just see the look in the athlete's face and know this is an experience they will remember for a long time." UC isn't alone in its humanitarianism. But it is among just a few dozen schools in the country that are recognized each year by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports for community service.

"We pride ourselves in giving back to the community," says Maggie McKinley, A&S '00, herself a former UC athlete, who is now UC assistant director of athletics for compliance and student services. "We are a campus right in the middle of Cincinnati. We aren't an island that is out of touch with the things going on around us.

"We rely on the community to come to our games and be involved. So we need to establish a relationship that makes them want to come and watch us."

Baseball's Evan Sanford is part of a team that won a school-record 39 games in the 2008 season. For him, though, some of the most lasting victories have come from his leadership role with the Committee to Promote Athlete Welfare and Success (CPAWS), a volunteer group focused on helping UC athletes unite and meet the needs of the community. Started in 1994, CPAWS is now one of the largest and most active student groups on campus, consisting of varsity sport athletes along with cheerleaders and dance-team members.

UC students interact with kids from community.

McKinley, a former CPAWS member who now serves as the group's adviser, says as many as 100 athletes, cheerleaders and dance-team members gather one Sunday every month to plan projects and organize at least one major volunteer task a quarter. "Every dollar that they spend on community outreach is a dollar they raised themselves," she says.

In the spring of 2008, for instance, CPAWS joined with the student spirit group RallyCats, to put on Fast Friday, a track and field event inside Armory Fieldhouse for about 200 Special Olympians from area schools. For the Special Olympians, it is an opportunity to come to campus, meet some Bearcats (including the mascot), compete in events and even explore a firetruck on loan from a nearby station. For the college students, the day offers some valuable perspective.

"Every student-athlete comes away with a whole new appreciation for their ability to compete in athletics at the collegiate level," McKinley says. "They have a little bit more of an appreciation for what they are able to do."

While UC athletes have taken part in community projects for years, outreach has become an even stronger emphasis since the adoption of "Catapult," a five-year action plan unveiled by athletics director Mike Thomas in 2006. Togetherness through community en-gagement is one of three basic components of Thomas' plan, with the other two focusing on winning championships and achieving academic excellence.

"People understand how much these young people compete to win championships," he says, "but they are achieving more by engaging others outside the UC family."