Ohio State Coaches, Athletes Help Tackle Illiteracy
Athletes reading to local 2nd graders

Dec. 30, 2011

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by Emily Krizan, Ohio State Athletics Communications graduate assistant

Last year, members of the Ohio State football team made 32 visits to local elementary schools through the Second and Seven Foundation.

They did it quietly. There were no reporters or photographers. There was no fanfare or recognition. They did it to support their coaches and because what the foundation represents is a cause they've grown to believe in.

With a focus on youth literacy, the foundation, which began in 1999, gives Ohio State student-athletes the opportunity to read to local second graders and provide each with a book of their own - something many don't have. 

"It's still crazy to me that the kids revere me and look up to me like that," offensive lineman Ivon Blackman said. "It gives you a special feeling that these kids respect you so much and it makes you want to work hard and be someone they can look up to. It inspires me to keep doing what I can both on and off the field."

The "Pay it Forward" mentality runs thick through the Buckeye football program. Given the responsibility of molding exceptional athletes, the coaching staff has also taken on the task of molding exceptional people.

Influenced by their own experiences as football players at Ohio State, Luke Fickell, Mike Vrabel and Ryan Miller came together after graduation to find a way to give back to the community that had always supported them.  

"There were a number of organizations we had the opportunity to be involved with when we were in school," Miller said. "You don't realize how big an influence you have just by putting on scarlet and gray. There is a responsibility there you don't even realize."

Inspired by their time with Right to Read Week, the three had the idea to "Tackle Illiteracy" by holding a football camp. In its inaugural year the camp raised enough funding to supply seven second-grade classrooms with books.

"We started out with a kids camp of about 50 kids and I think about 20 of them were relatives of mine, in the park behind my parent's house," Fickell said. 

Last summer, there were more than 300 children in attendance at the foundation's FUNdamental Football Camp in Hilliard, Ohio.

It goes without saying that the founders of the Second and Seven Foundation have seen their fair share of success over the years. Fickell is wrapping up his 10th year working for his alma mater alongside linebackers coach Vrabel, who notched three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. A former Buckeye linebacker, Miller earned two Emmys in sports broadcasting before starting his own marketing firm.

Teammates, friends and former roommates, the trio have shared in each other's accomplishments and have watched their idea grow to something which has made a real impact. 

Enlisting the help of The Ohio State University and Department of Athletics, the foundation reached nearly 5,000 students at over 55 central Ohio classrooms during the 2010-11 school year, with Ohio State student-athletes from 21 different teams volunteering to read.

"We used to go read the books two days a week, with four schools one day and three the next," Vrabel said. "Now the student-athletes represent us and Ohio State. We obviously can't get the message out to every single kid, so it's nice to have the help of the student-athletes."

In addition to Ohio State, a variation of the program has also been adopted by athletics departments at Toledo, Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio Wesleyan and North Carolina and reached an additional 12,000 children throughout the country last year.

"Without the athletic department, without the volunteers, without the community and without the sponsors, it would be very difficult to reach as many kids," Miller said. "Every day we are thankful there is so much generosity."

Every Thursday and Friday morning, armed with books and a message, Ohio State student-athletes head out into the Columbus community.

This fall, they have been reading The Hog Mollies and the Amazing Aquatic Adventure, the foundation's own book. The fourth edition in the Hog Mollies series, the latest installment reminds children of the value of being unique and accepting others.

"It (the program) is very rewarding for our students because they get to see both an athlete and a college student," Lindsey Kubli, principal at Woodcrest Elementary, said. "It's something they can relate to and it really empowers them that they have to read for their future. I always love the themes of the books too, and we're able to remind the students of when the athletes came to speak and carry that throughout the year. It's wonderful."

Fickell says the program is a "win-win" for both the community and his players who get to see some of the realities of life away from campus.

"One of my favorite things is bringing the players to a school that have never read before and talking to them afterwards," Larry Romanoff, director of external affairs for the football program, said. "They always ask when they get to go back."

For more information on the Second and Seven Foundation, visit: www.secondandseven.com.