HUEYTOWN, Ala. — The kids filter into the Boys and Girls Club, and their excitement shows.
They place their book bags where they’re supposed to go — most of them do, at any rate. Coats, too. Counselors herd everybody this way and that, getting them in place for the afternoon’s big event.
Wrestlers from at least eight different Division II schools are on the way. It’s part of the NCAA’s community engagement program during the Winter National Championships Festival, and these kids are quite obviously pumped about it all.
|DII WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIP|
|Recap: Nebraska-Kearney repeats|
|Highlights | Photo Gallery|
|Team Scores | Final Bracket|
|Feature: Giving back to Boys and Girls Clubs|
|Recap: St. Cloud State stars|
|Feature: O’Grady not what you expect|
|Notes: Star power at DII Championship|
|Qualifiers | Brackets | Super Regions|
This town is the very heart of NASCAR’s legendary Alabama Gang — Bobby, Donnie and Davey Allison, not to mention Neil Bonnett — but on this Wednesday it’s all about NCAA Division II wrestling.
“Division II schools across the country have always believed that there’s no way we can expect communities where our universities are located to support us if we don’t support them,” said Jill Willson, of DLL Consulting, who oversees the NCAA community engagement program. “Community engagement is just an extension of that. It’s our responsibility to bring people to our campuses, to learn more about what the universities have to offer.
“A lot of times, it’s our job as the athletic department to show off what is going on on campus. In a Festival year, when we’re in communities like Birmingham [Ala.], we want to give back to them.”
Along with this event, track and field student-athletes were headed to Children’s of Alabama, a hospital in nearby Birmingham as part of the community engagement program. Virtually every athlete helped pack healthy snack packs to distribute at the Hueytown Boys and Girls Club and at the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club in Birmingham.
“These two interactions have just been amazing,” Willson said. “Our student-athletes have been so excited, because what they’re doing at the hotels is stuffing backpacks full of healthy snacks that we’re going to donate. Quite honestly, from the time they leave school Friday until they go back on Monday, some of these kids don’t have a meal. For us to be able to give back to them is going to be something that’s just amazing.”
To call what happened here in Hueytown an honest-to-goodness wrestling clinic would probably be overstating what actually happened. Although the coaches and student-athletes who took part did go through some of the basics of the sport, it wasn’t a scouting mission for the participants, such as the contingent from the Colorado School of Mines: head coach Josh Hutchens, assistant coach Austin DeVoe and 157-pound wrestler John Crowley.
Finding the next national champion wasn’t the point. Not here. Not in this setting.
“I think it’s great,” Hutchens said. “Being involved in NCAA sports, we travel all around the country, not just for nationals, but for many events throughout the season. It’s great to be involved in the community and have a connection with the people, especially the children. Any chance you have to do that, it’s special.”
Colorado is a long way from Hueytown, and that gave Crowley a moment’s pause. Whose life might he help change in this place, at this moment, so far from his home?
“You know … you never know who you’re going to influence here,” he said. “It’d just be great to give to the people as best I can, get them out here, get them active and explain the importance of college.”
Josh Pierce was raised by his father, and started coming to the Hueytown Boys and Girls Club when he was 7 years old. Twenty-years later, he’s still here, working as the program director.
“I could have went a completely different path without this place,” Pierce said. “[My dad] obviously had the main influence, but if I were to list a second one, it would be the Boys and Girls Club.
“It was a place to be. It was the counselors and the guidance I received at the Boys and Girls Club from the staff. The other members hold you to a level of accountability.”
This place is alive with activity, and not just when the NCAA’s elite wrestlers are in town. Average daily attendance is about 220 kids, and there’s a teen center going up right across the street that’s scheduled to open in late May.
“It’s huge to have DII guys here,” Pierce concluded. “It’s another reason that keeps our members around. They get kind of tired seeing the same thing. This kind of stuff creates excitement around the program.”