Dr. Elizabeth Oppe was grading some papers for an online journalism course she was teaching last summer that involved some volunteer public relations service work for the United Way when she saw Geno Smith’s name pop up on her television screen.
The United Way has traditionally been one of the NFL’s biggest charities, but since West Virginia doesn’t have an NFL franchise the local United Way chapter here in Morgantown doesn’t typically have access to Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins or Baltimore Ravens players.
West Virginia University football players are admired throughout the state, so why not try and get them involved, she thought?
So a month later, she pitched the idea to Brett White, the Mon-Preston United Way Director of Development and Marketing, and he liked it. Then came the hard part: locating enough players to come back to campus.
First, after mobilizing her group of student volunteers, they researched what other colleges were doing and couldn’t find a single instance to help guide them.
“We tried finding samples to make our lives easier and we couldn’t find any,” Oppe said.
Initially, she had her students write letters to all of the NFL teams that had former Mountaineers players on their current rosters, but that turned out to be a shot in the dark because pro teams get many requests like these on a daily basis.
Then, she emailed Quincy Wilson, Mountaineer football’s assistant director of operations, to see if he could help. Wilson said he was interested, as long as what she was doing was going to benefit area youths.
Wilson has organized youth clinics in the past in his hometown of Weirton and also here in Morgantown with great success.
“Quincy said the players would come back for the kids, so it took off from there,” said Oppe.
What has evolved from her initial idea last summer is an all-day event on Saturday, March 1, featuring a Day of Play with NFL players at the West Virginia University Rec Center in the morning, a Children’s Hospital visit in the early afternoon and a United Way Benefit Dinner that evening at the WVU Alumni Center.
Registration for the Day of Play begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Rec Center and the two-hour event with the NFL players will last until noon. Then, some of the players will have an hour visit at WVU Children’s Hospital followed by the United Way Dinner later that evening, starting with a cocktail hour at 6 p.m. and continuing with the dinner at 7 p.m.
There will be video presentations, speaking and photo opportunities with the returning players, says Oppe.
“We’re trying to raise as much money as we can so it can go back to the kids,” Oppe noted.
As for the Day of Play, she is hopeful of having 150 or more kids signed up by March 1.
“The whole message is physical activity, diet and nutrition, and keep doing it day after day and you are going to grow up healthy,” she said.
The list of former Mountaineer players continues to evolve, Oppe says, but she has confirmations from Bruce Irvin of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Keith Tandy, Wilson, former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Rasheed Marshall and former Los Angeles Raiders draft choice Major Harris, always a big draw at local events.
Oppe is confident that additional players will be added to the list in the coming days.
More information on the day of play and the benefit dinner can be found at the website UMountaineers.com
The price of a ticket to the benefit dinner is just $50.
Oppe said they are also still accepting sponsorships and those can be processed through the website, or by calling her at (304) 293-6773.