Paying It Forward
Cobber teammates give back through inSports Foundation
Cobber teammates give back through inSports Foundation
MOORHEAD, Minn. — Lifelong involvement in sports has made a major impact on Concordia College men’s hockey student-athletes Max Smith and Andrew Deters. The two teammates have learned countless lessons on the ice that have helped them grow in all facets of their lives. In fact, their experiences in sports have been so enriched, the two have dedicated themselves to ensuring the youth in their communities receive the same opportunities.
“Being a part of a team can do a lot for you,” Smith said, “and we want to be able to give [kids] that experience.”
Enter the inSports Foundation.
“I realized how big an impact sports had on my life,” Deters added,” and giving that experience back to others, that’s what we do.”
A FOUNDATION IS BORN
Smith – a sophomore defenseman from Eagan, Minn. – spent his first year after high school playing for the Washington (D.C.) Nationals in the EJHL junior league. During his time in the capital city, he took a class on entrepreneurship and was assigned to develop a business idea. At that moment, he started brainstorming a plan that would grow into much more than a simple class project.
“My initial idea was to sell golf clothing, and use the money to teach kids how to golf,” Smith said. “I had been working with my parents’ company – Innovative Office Solutions – and that got me thinking how we could connect Innovative with giving back to kids.”
The idea continued to marinate as Smith made the long move from D.C. to Moorhead. Now a Cobber freshman, Smith attended a leadership conference with his head coach, Chris Howe. There, they met someone with a story so powerful it moved them to action, and the In Sports Foundation was born.
Princess Titus approached Howe at the leadership event, and began talking to the coach about recruiting student-athletes from inner-city hockey programs in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Her son, Anthony Titus, Jr., had played hockey and football, and dreamed of playing at the college level. However, both Anthony and his athletic dreams died at the age of 17 when he was inadvertently killed by gang-related crossfire. Howe was so moved by the story, he felt compelled to find a way to honor Anthony’s memory and help his dream live on.
“His story hit me hard,” Howe said. “I started thinking, ‘Maybe there’s something we can do to see if we can make a difference. Maybe Anthony’s story is a way we could build something to honor him.’ He was a great kid, and it’s a great story.”
Howe shared the story and his idea with Smith, who responded by sharing his idea for a similar charitable effort – he already had the name “inSports Foundation” picked out – and the two ideas came together, and came to life. “Our ideas just combined, and took on this new direction,” Smith said. “Our main purpose now is to help kids get involved in sports and live healthy lifestyles.”
“Max and Andrew – they’re students running this foundation,” Howe added. “I worked with Max on the idea, but those guys stepped up and said, ‘Coach, we want to run with this.’ It’s been pretty incredible.”
That main purpose is shared on the inSports Foundation’s web site, along with Anthony’s story and the foundation’s mission. “The inSports Foundation was created to transform children’s lives,” reads the “About us” section of the site, “We want to help kids be bigger than themselves through the power of sports.” The mission is concise and direct: “Providing youth with an opportunity to get involved with sports and live healthy lifestyles.”
“We’re hoping to change kids’ lives,” said Deters. “We want to help as many kids as possible and, in turn, they make a huge difference on our lives as well.”
From there, Smith formed a partnership with Innovative Office Solutions to help with some of the business aspects of the new venture, and he started building a team and brainstorming ways inSports could pursue its mission. Deters, and several others, jumped on board and the movement began to gain momentum. And, as anyone familiar with athletics knows, momentum is a terrific indicator of success.
‘MAKING A DIFFERENCE’
The first step was getting inSports up and running. Up next? Finding ways to carry out its mission. Smith took the lead as Founder and Chief Executive Officer and Deters assumed the role of Chief Operating Officer. From there, the staff and its operations began to grow. Once just an idea, inSports now had a mission, a web site and a staff of 13, ready to forge ahead.
With the foundation in place, Anthony Titus’ story was still very much in their hearts as they began working towards their goal of helping youth gain opportunities through sports. inSports reached out to Titus’ former youth hockey organization – New Directions Hockey – and began brainstorming ways to give back directly to that group, and to youth in the Fargo-Moorhead community as well.
The bond with the New Directions Hockey program began in late January, when 16 players and their families attended the Concordia men’s hockey game at Hamline. It was the first time many of the youth had attended a college game – which happened to be an exciting 2-1 overtime win by the Cobbers – and they received inSports t-shirts and a meet-and-greet and autograph session with the players after the win. The New Directions players’ excitement was palpable.
However, inSports had one more surprise in store for its new friends. The foundation announced that it would be holding a youth hockey camp in the summer. In addition to inviting underprivileged youth in the Fargo-Moorhead area, the New Directions players were also invited to attend. All 16 received applications and, through fundraising efforts, many will be able to attend on scholarships to have an experience they otherwise might not be able to afford.
“That’s when it hit me that we’re really making a difference,” Smith said. “The look on their faces when we told them about the camp was priceless. I knew we’d be making a difference the moment we saw the faces of these kids and their parents and they realized what we wanted to do for this group.”
In order to fund the camp, inSports has embarked on a number of fundraising endeavors. Two of the main fundraisers have been apparel sales and an upcoming charity golf tournament. Deters said the apparel sales have worked to benefit Concordia athletics and inSports, simultaneously.
“We’ve worked with a lot of Concordia’s athletic teams to set up these apparel fundraisers,” Deters said. “We help the teams get apparel, and then whatever they sell, a portion goes back to the team and a portion goes to the foundation.”
Plans are going great for the inSports Foundation Charity Golf Tournament, which will be held June 9 at Oxbow Country Club in Fargo, N.D. Smith also plays golf for the Cobbers, so this event really melds his athletic interests. The golf tournament is a very hockey-centric event, with a trio of star-studded guest speakers lined up for the awards banquet.
Two members of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team – Dave Christian and John Harrington – as well as former University of Minnesota star Pat Micheletti will be the keynote speakers at the Golf Tournament’s awards banquet. Harrington also adds another MIAC tie to the event, as he was the head coach at Saint John’s from 1993-2008, while Christian starred in the NHL after his Olympic success. The high-profile speaker lineup serves as evidence that inSports’ reputation – and mission – is catching on.
“We want to make it a great event,” Smith said. “We have three great speakers to talk about hockey. All the money will go to our camps for kids and programs for kids and it will really benefit the Fargo-Moorhead community. If people want to help out, we’re still looking for people to sponsor a hole or play in the tournament. It will be a great time, and benefit a great cause.”
As student-athletes, Smith and Deters know that sometimes the game plan needs to be adjusted, and they’ve applied that philosophy to some of their latest community service efforts at inSports. Though the foundation remains primarily focused on the health and well-being of youth through sports, when they learned a fellow member of the hockey community was in need, they took it as another call to action.
Zach Kraft recently completed a standout hockey career at nearby Fargo North High School, where he scored the game-winning goal to lift his team to victory in the North Dakota state championship game. After high school, he continued his hockey career in the junior ranks, playing for the Wisconsin Wilderness. Last season, he thought he had a concussion and visited a doctor. The exam revealed it wasn’t a concussion at all, but a golf-ball sized tumor instead. Kraft was diagnosed with Gliboblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer.
inSports began raising money for Kraft, selling “Team Kraft” t-shirts with a logo designed by Kraft himself. The foundation used the power of social media to help drive sales and lift Kraft’s spirits, starting a photo contest on Twitter. Anyone who tweeted a photo wearing the t-shirt with the hashtag #TeamKraft would be entered in a drawing for prizes, and the results were outstanding. inSports presented Kraft with a check for more than $2,300 and Sanford Health added a $2,500 contribution during a surprise ceremony at a Fargo Force (USHL) hockey game.
“When we presented the check to Zach at the Fargo Force game, we really surprised him,” Smith said. “The reaction on his face, you could tell we were really making a difference for him. I talk to him every day or every other day, and he thanks me all the time.”
inSports recently learned of another junior-level hockey player from Minnesota who was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and plans are already under way to join his fight as well. In fact, Smith said Kraft is excited about getting involved even as he wages his own battle against cancer in a sterling example of how paying it forward really can foster the growth of a positive movement.
“[Kraft] loves what we did for him, and he wants to do the same for others,” Smith said. “It’s a growing effect. If we help one person out, they might want to help others, too. That part of the whole experience is really rewarding.”
In its first year of operation, inSports has also been involved in several other hockey-related charitable endeavors. inSports partnered with the Concordia Dance Marathon for Chuck-a-Puck fundraisers to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network. The foundation also partnered with the Minnesota Wild to sell discounted tickets to the Wild’s home games, with a portion of the sales benefitting inSports.
‘ALWAYS PLAY BIG’
Just a year into its existence, it’s safe to say inSports has been a resounding success. Despite juggling college hockey and rigorous academic schedules, Smith and Deters – along with the rest of their team at the foundation – have clearly begun carrying out their mission, while also laying the groundwork for growth.
“I didn’t think we would ever be this far,” Deters said. “We only started last year and, looking back, everything we’ve already accomplished is pretty amazing. It’s pretty surreal how much we’ve already done in just a short amount of time.”
Another surprise to the young foundation is the positive reaction and groundswell of support they’ve received. Several other Concordia teammates joined the cause, various academic departments at the college pleged their support, and other college students around the state got involved. inSports’ mission has resonated with many.
“Different people have jumped on board that I never would’ve expected,” said Smith. “There’s been a lot of support at our school. There have been some student groups doing class projects with inSports.”
A charitable foundation that began as a class project now receives support from current students through class projects of their own. It’s an education-meets-philanthropy circle-of-life where everyone benefits.
“It’s really making a difference for the direction we’re headed,” Smith added.
That direction, for inSports, is never in question. Though Smith and Deters clearly have enough on their plate as it is, the two never stop gazing towards the horizon. Eventually, they’d like to have a facility where they can carry out the heart of their mission on a daily basis, and maybe even a mobile command center where they can take their efforts on the road.
“I’d love to have some big sports complexes that have programs throughout the day for kids who can’t afford to be part of a team, or afford extra-curricular things like camps,” Smith said. “Other teams could come in and rent our facility – use the ice or field – but it would also give us a place to constantly have programs to promote healthy lifestyles, benefit kids who can’t afford something like that and keep kids off the streets.”
“Some of our goals are out there,” Deters said. “Someday we’d like to have a bus where we could go around to communities and put on a week-long sports camp. It could involve the entire family and really promote a healthy lifestyle. That’s obviously down the road, but it would be another great way to make a difference through sports.”
Through their passion for their project, their coach said it’s easy to predict that both are all-in with inSports. He expects this first year to serve as the starting point of a foundation with immense potential, largely thanks to those in charge.
“This is a part of their future,” Howe said. “It will still be a big part of their lives in 15 years. They’re going to be really giving to others and make a big difference. There’s no limit to what they can do.”
Though the rapid success of the foundation has surprised Howe, his two student-athletes in charge have not. The coach said he challenges his players to be champions, which has much more to do with approach, effort and attitude than the numbers on the scoreboard or in the win column. To him, Smith and Deters are perfect examples of the Cobber hockey definition of the word.
“With Max and Andrew, no matter what the scoreboard says or how the record shakes out, those guys are champions,” Howe said. “They both have this charismatic spirit and they just have a way with people. Every coach talks about what great kids we have, and these two are a model of what the MIAC stands for, and what we want in our programs.
“My wife always says, ‘Max and Andrew, they could be President and Vice President someday.’ They’re just really extraordinary people.”
Through it all, the coach’s message hasn’t been lost on his players. They appreciate that he expects greatness from them both on and off the ice, and that philosophy has carried over into their pursuit of inSports’ mission. In turn, they hope to use that philosophy to grow the foundation while equipping today’s youth with opportunities to pursue their dreams. And, with any luck, the kids they aim to help will benefit from the same lessons learned in sports that have shaped Smith and Deters into the people they’ve become.
“Coach Howe always says, ‘Never play small, always play big,'” Deters said. “This foundation is a perfect picture of that. We know if we work hard and put in the work anything can be accomplished. Our dreams and goals, if we keep working hard and doing what we do … it’s very cool to know that it’s all possible.”
It’s even cooler to pass that message on to the next generation.