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A Cause Worth Playing For

Americans love their sports.   I read somewhere recently that participating in organized sports is the number two activity for children under the age of 18 in the United States.   Number one you ask?   School. Let’s break that down.  School is REQUIRED in the United States.  Playing sports, specifically organized sports, is completely optional (although some crazy parents looking for a college scholarship might argue that).   Nearly 45 million of the 72 million children in our country play organized sports.   The influence sports has on our youth is undeniable. And the lessons they learn through sports - as well as what they learn from their coaches - plays a crucial role in a child’s development.  Let’s hope there are more good coaches out there than bad ones.  Coaches that are role models.  Coaches that inspire our kids to get the most from their ability.  Coaches that use sports as a vehicle to teach strong character, life lessons, and how to be a great teammate. Unfortunately, youth sports today paints a much darker image.   This is why I am so passionate about being a coach and an athletic director.  Because of the emphasis placed on sports in our society, whether as a participant, parent, or simply a fan, the impact we can make through sports can be transformational.   We just need to find a cause worth playing for.   One afternoon in the summer of 2015, my hockey coach and athletic trainer were attempting to persuade me to purchase camouflage hockey uniforms to use as alternates for the upcoming season.  Camo jerseys have become somewhat of a trend in recent years. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the look on a sports jersey.  Plus, we didn’t have it in our budget to purchase new uniforms.  After saying no a dozen times, I attempted to get them off my case by spurting out that I would consider getting the jerseys, as long as they were used to show appreciation for our troops and help raise money for the military.   I never imagined what would come from that somewhat half-serious statement. Immediately my coach and trainer loved the idea and agreed to help make it happen.  Ideas started flying and we began to get really excited about the possibilities of hosting a Military Appreciation Game.  We decided that all proceeds made from the game would go to support the Zilinski Memorial Fund, named after CBA and West Point graduate, Dennis W. Zilinski II. Dennis was a friend, classmate, and teammate of mine while on the Christian Brothers Academy swim team.  A 2004 graduate of West Point, Dennis was a first lieutenant with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division.  He lost his life courageously serving our country in Iraq in 2005.  Dennis’s parents, Marion and Dennis Sr., started a foundation in his name that has done extraordinary work in helping countless military veterans over the past decade.   When I called Mrs. Zilinski to explain our idea for a Military Appreciation Game, she loved it and was excited to help.  She suggested we use the proceeds from the game to go toward K9s for Warriors, an organization dedicated to providing service dogs to our warriors suffering from Post-traumatic Stress, traumatic brain injury, and other mental trauma as a result of military service post 9/11.  A majority of the dogs used by K9s for Warriors come from high-kill and rescue shelters. The impact these dogs have on their veterans is jaw-dropping and inspiring, and hearing stories from veterans on how these dogs have saved their lives will bring you to tears.   The cost to train one service dog: $15,000. It was ambitious, but we had our goal.  We needed to raise $15,000 in one night to purchase a service dog for a warrior who was struggling to assimilate to civilian life after the battlefield.   This needed to be a huge event.   In a matter of days we had a cause, a goal, and a committee established.   Now we just needed an opponent. Our coach reached out to one of our biggest rivals, Don Bosco Prep.  They had been wearing camouflage jerseys for a couple of years in honor of one of their fallen alums, Army Major Thomas Kennedy.  The game would be a perfect fit; two rivals fighting together for one cause.   Don Bosco agreed without hesitation.    We were all set and the planning began.   On January 6, 2016, in front of a sold out arena, the two top teams in the state squared off in the inaugural Military Appreciation Game. (In case you’re wondering, yes we bought the camo jerseys).  The evening was a tremendous success.  We sold tickets, had raffles, and took donations at the door, as well as online.  In addition, CBA alum and Stanley Cup Champion Trevor van Riemsdyk was gracious enough to donate a signed jersey, which was bid on to support the cause.

The generosity of both the CBA and Don Bosco community was nothing short of miraculous.  At the end of the night, after every last penny was counted, we had our number… Over $15,000 raised. We reached our goal and would be able to help a veteran in need.  The countless hours of work that went into making this night happen by so many people was astounding.  Just another reason why I feel so blessed to work at Christian Brothers. The next day, as I was delivering the great news to Mrs. Zilinski, she informed me that we would have the honor of naming the dog.  Both fitting and obvious, the name came to us almost immediately…Colt, after our athletic mascot at CBA. After nearly 18 months of searching for and training Colt, he now has a warrior and a home.  Just last month, Michael, a former member for the United States Air Force who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, graduated from the K9s for Warriors developmental training school with Colt by his side.   Michael now joins a small, but growing list of veterans who benefit greatly from what service dogs provide them.  Where medication and prescription pills may fail, these dogs can truly fill a void felt by our brave men and women returning from war.  They help reduce the anxiety and fear caused by Post-traumatic stress by giving our warriors a teammate to care for, a sense of purpose, a routine, and a security to go out of their comfort zone.   The list goes on and on, just read the testimonials.   I look forward to meeting Michael and Colt one day and hope they can visit CBA.  Maybe we can even enjoy a sporting event together.   A dog saved and a life changed.  All from a conversation about something as trivial as camouflaged jerseys.  It’s the least we can do for the men and women who fight to provide us the freedom and comfort to enjoy sports in America. But wait...there’s more. In the weeks after our Military Appreciation Game, Mrs. Zilinski called me up to deliver even more incredible news.  The Zilinski Foundation would MATCH our $15,000 donation, bringing us to over $30,000 and giving us the ability to rescue an additional dog!  I told you, these are truly extraordinary people.   This time, the members of the CBA hockey team would have the honor of naming the dog.  Can you guess what they came up with?   You betcha, Puck. You gotta love the power of sports in this country.

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