Sports & Recreation / Summer 2018

For men’s soccer team, giving back is a real kick

The men’s soccer team’s focus on schoolwork and service netted it its fourth Gold Vest Award in the last five years. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Even at the University of Denver, where the priorities of every athletics team include a focus on academics and community service, men’s soccer stands out.

Consistently ranked among the NCAA Division I teams with the highest cumulative GPA, the squad also has a commitment to service that finds its members — when they aren’t on the field or in the classroom — volunteering on campus and in the community.

Among the organizations they support are Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House and Team Impact, a national nonprofit that connects college sports teams with kids facing medical challenges.

Former soccer players fondly remember being cheered on from the sidelines by Ben Brewer, a courageous young cancer patient who “signed” with the team at age 13, or going to Children’s to make paper airplanes with young patients, bringing smiles in an environment where they often are in short supply.

“When you do something outside of yourself, you feel like you have a higher purpose,” says Sam Hamilton, a former Pioneer who now plays for the Colorado Rapids. “Now that I’m removed from the [DU] program, I understand what it did for me back then. Now, when I go do stuff in the community, [I realize that] it’s a way to separate yourself from work and realize there’s more to life.”

That’s music to the ears of soccer head coach Jamie Franks, who knows that most of the young men who come through his program won’t end up playing professionally. His No. 1 goal, he says, is to turn out leaders who know their strengths and how to drive themselves to succeed.

“Our biggest resource here is our people,” he says. “Too many coaches these days are just looking at the athletic side of it. If you use the holistic approach and hold them accountable on the field, in the community and in the classroom, you’re going to develop much more well-rounded people.”

Franks’ whole-person approach has paid off for a legion of former DU players, including recent departure Alex Underwood, who is interning at Deloitte while finishing a concurrent bachelor’s and master’s degree program in accounting at DU.

“There’s a statistic that only 2 percent of NCAA athletes go pro in sports, and the other 98 percent have to go pro in something else,” he says. “I wanted to go to a place that I felt would not only grow me as a soccer player and maybe prepare me for that opportunity, but also grow me as a person to prepare me for life after soccer. I definitely feel like DU did that through putting a heavy emphasis on making an impact in the community and in forming good relationships with people who have different stories from you. I got to learn a lot from those individuals.”

In May, the soccer team’s focus on schoolwork and service netted it its fourth Gold Vest Award in the last five years. The honor is given annually to an outstanding Pioneers team for excellence in community service, academics, spirit, leadership and athletic performance. It’s recognition that in all of DU athletics — not just soccer — what happens off the field is just as important as what happens on.

“The coaching staff places a pretty high emphasis on being more than just a soccer player and taking advantage of the opportunities that we were given,” Underwood says. “It’s been pretty rewarding to get to use my platform as a student-athlete to be able to make a difference in the community. It’s been fun.”

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