By Cassi White, MSU Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Every football program in the country uses the time in May, June and July to get stronger and grow. They develop individually during early morning workouts and organized training activities to prepare for fall camp, and then a month later, the season. Michigan State has been preparing for games, but also added another priority to the list—impacting the community. Every single returning student-athlete on the Michigan State football team, excluding the incoming freshman class who will begin their volunteer opportunities come the fall, has volunteered with Lansing Promise, and has mentored part of Lansing’s youth in one way or another.
The Lansing Promise is a program that has the goal of giving every student the opportunity to further their education. Any eligible student that graduates from one of the high schools in the area can receive tuition assistance for up to 65 credits at Lansing Community College, or the equivalent dollar amount at either Olivet College or Michigan State University, if accepted.
The Spartans have visited all 14 schools in the Lansing area, ranging from all grades and ages, K-12. The players said that they just sat down and “communicated” with the kids, but the stories that were told, the lessons that were learned, and the laughs and smiles that were shared ended up being much more than that. Not just to the youth of Lansing, but to the entire Spartan football team as well.
Back in April, Lansing Promise held a dinner event in support of the program. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio was in attendance, and believed that having his players involved in this could be a “unique” opportunity to change lives.
“You see who the player is when they go out among young people and that’s exciting to see,” Dantonio said, speaking with promise and poise about his team this upcoming year.
The players are randomly assigned a mentor on the staff, whether it’s a coach, a graduate assistant or a support staff member from the football program. There are more mentees than mentors, so the mentors took their groups of athletes to volunteer at the 14 different schools on different days. The number one goal was to impact the lives of kids. The second was for the Spartans to spend quality time with one another, while making a difference. The third was for young people to see this team as people, and not just Spartan football players. All of those goals were achieved to say the least.
With the help of Dino Folino, Kellie Dean, Teri Benero, Courtney Bollman, Justin Sheehan, Yvonne Caamal Canul and Michigan State’s very own Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who is a sponsor for the Lansing Promise, the members of the Spartan football team were able to build relationships and make some memories to last a lifetime.
Because 78 Spartans volunteered their time, 78 different stories came out of this experience. Redshirt-freshman offensive lineman Luke Campbell went to an elementary school that had a field day occurring. He said there were dunk tanks with players and kids getting soaked. He also left the school with a few more Facebook friends.
“It’s really nice and fun to sit down and talk to kids, especially those who may have struggled. I told them how football has really helped me through my life and hopefully it can help them,” Campbell said. “One thing I like to pride myself on is helping others; a great way to do that is to go out there and talk to kids, especially the youth, and let them know that we all care, and that we’re here to help them.”
Junior safety Khari Willis described the experience as “eye-opening” and touched on how grateful he would have been to have that as a kid, but also how appreciative he is now to have been able to do such a thing. He used his charismatic and playful personality in hanging out with the kids.
“Those kids were so happy. We played basketball with them. I dunked on a kid. It was a short rim, but I mean hey, whatever works,” Willis said, laughing.
Senior linebacker Chris Frey saw the experience as much more than just having fun with the youth of Lansing. He saw it as an opportunity to relate to his teammates more, and to bond with them.
“Some of the kids at that school I visited, they don’t have much,” Frey said. “Some of the guys on our team came up from a similar background. You kind of learn a lot about a teammate just through that opportunity because they bond with these kids a little bit more, because they know what it’s like.”
Frey also beamed with pride when talking about how being a Spartan and wearing the Spartan uniform can mean so much and make him a role model for other kids in the area.
“Being from Columbus, Ohio, when I go home, the kids there are like, ‘Oh, you play for Michigan State.’ It’s not the same. Then you go to this school and every one of these little kids, they look up to you. Even if they don’t know much about football, they just know that you’re a Spartan and they look up to you,” Frey said, smiling.
For senior quarterback Damion Terry, the experience felt familiar. It reminded him of family, and that hit home, being the oldest with three younger siblings.
Terry also touched on how volunteering with Lansing Promise made more of an impact on him and his teammates than he could have imagined.
“Seeing the smiles on their faces when we get to their school, the teachers almost have to tell them to be quiet because they’re in such awe,” Terry said, reminiscing on the scene. “I know, not only for myself, but speaking for a lot of other guys, they bring joy to us. It gets crazy out here, especially with everything we’ve been going through. So just seeing them, it goes such a long way. We just want to make a positive impact on them.”
Fellow quarterback, junior Brian Lewerke had a similar feeling.
“We talked to them and tried to build a relationship with them,” Lewerke said. “I remember looking back when I was in elementary school and I was definitely looking up to people like that in my position. I can only hope that they would look at me in that way, and look forward to building a relationship with these kids.”
The relationships that were formed between the Spartan football team and the youth of Lansing are not just a “summer-fling.” They have plans to continue to spend time with the kids during the fall, hoping that some of them can come to games and even get to see something that most individuals do not: a behind the scenes look at a few practices. The incoming 2017 freshman class will join their teammates in volunteering at that time.
“They had an opportunity to share their time with young people in the Lansing area and I think that can only benefit them and us,” Dantonio said.