Brian Lester, NCAA.com
Mount Union's football team has made its presence felt on the field time and again. The 10 NCAA Division III national championships, 19 Ohio Athletic Conference titles, No. 2 national ranking and 55-game regular-season win streak are accomplishments that stand on their own.
Yet, it's what the Purple Raiders have done off the field that seems to mean so much more than scoring touchdowns, winning games and hoisting championship hardware, at least in the eyes of students at Northside Elementary School in Alliance, Ohio.
Each week, members of the team take time out of their schedules to hang out with students in first through fifth grades during lunch and recess as part of the popular Raider Buddy program.
The children light up when they see the players come through the hallway. They can't wait to talk to the athletes and have fun with them on the playground or in the gym.
It is crystal clear that the impact the players have on the lives of the children will last long after the cheering inside Mount Union Stadium has stopped and their collegiate careers are memories.
Senior offensive linemen Brett Ekkens has seen the impact that he and his teammates have had on the students. Ekkens has been involved with the Raider Buddy program since his sophomore year and has enjoyed every minute of it.
"It's so important to give back to your community, and we take a lot of pride in being able to make a difference in the lives of the students," Ekkens said. "They get so excited when they us. It's nice to be able to be someone they can look up to."
It doesn't even bother Ekkens that the students used to think he played for a high school football team.
"Those kids can be very funny sometimes," Ekkens said. "They thought we played at the local high school. They didn't understand that we were college football players. I think most of them know that now."
MU head coach Larry Kehres, who has more than 300 wins with the Purple Raiders, believes the experience of the voluntary buddy program has been good for his players.
"Each person has his own experience with the program," Kehres said. "I think the one thing it teaches them is compassion and it shows them the impact they can have on young people. The program has nothing to do with football and everything to do with becoming a complete person."
Gretchen Cox is the facilitator of 'Success For All,' a comprehensive reading program at Northside Elementary School. She helped start the program in 2006.
Cox is a long-time season ticket holder for MU football and thought it would be great if the players could come to the school and spend time with the students.
It turned out to be a good idea. Sophomore, junior and senior players at MU can be a buddy at the school, and because of the popularity of the program, there are often four or five students matched up with a player. The players take part in the buddy program in the offseason as well.
"The players are great role models for the kids," Cox said. "They see that the players have been given an opportunity to play football and go to school, and they want to be successful, too. They also learn about the importance of hard work and preparation from the players. The come away from the experience feeling good about themselves."
Cox noted that the students also tend to stay out of trouble during the school year because they don't want to miss out on a chance to hang out with the players.
"They take a lot of pride in acting their best so they don't end up in the principal's office," Cox said. "Even attendance has gone up in the school. It's had a very positive impact on the school."
Former MU and current NFL players Pierre Garcon (Indianapolis Colts) and Cecil Shorts (Jacksonville Jaguars) participated in the buddy program when they were in school.
Cox actually has a good story to tell about Shorts.
There was one instance where Shorts sat at a table and asked the children if they had read about Mount Union in the newspaper. He wanted to know what they read about. From that point on, the children made sure to read about the team every week so they could answer the questions Shorts would ask.
Another time, former MU quarterback Greg Micheli had a Raider Buddy who was handicapped. When Micheli led the Purple Raiders to their 10th national championship in 2008, earning MVP honors in the process, the student put a sign on his walker that let everyone know Micheli was his buddy.
It's examples such as the above-mentioned that make the time the players spend at the school worthwhile.
"You know that by going to the school and being with the students, you are going to make an impact on their lives," Ekkens said. "You don't get a lot of chances to do that and we feel fortunate that we have an opportunity to be in a position where we can be a role model. The kids love it and we come away from the experience as better people."
For Ekkens, the buddy program provides him with hands-on experience that will benefit him in his career as a teacher. The confidence he gains from the buddy program also helps him on the field.
"I want to teach and it's great that I get to see the kids act normal around me," Ekkens said. "They see me as a friend and I can learn a lot about the way they act in school. It's definitely going to be a big help me to me in my career. I feel like I've become more confident as a person and as a football player."
Ekkens is looking forward to spending time with his Raider Buddies one last time this season and is glad he took advantage of the opportunity to be a part of it.
"I wanted to do it as a freshmen because I heard about how much the players enjoyed it," Ekkens said. "As soon as I could sign up, I did. I've enjoyed the experience and I think I've gained more from it than the students have. It's been one of the best parts of my college experience."
Video and photos courtesy of the Mount Union athletic department.