Each year, head strength and conditioning coach Jed Smith, pushes the team to come up with class projects. This year, the sophomore class decided to go a different route. Smith got them into contact with the Leisure, Youth and Human Services department at UNI, where an idea was born.
"We told Jed that we wanted to build a playground," sophomore Jacob Appleman said. "We set up a meeting and asked where we could help and Highland Park in Waterloo came into the conversation."
Originally, the project was left out of the Community Development Board's spending plan for the Community Development Block Grant, but the council members had a change of heart when UNI football agreed to provide in-kind labor ($10,000) and raise an additional $5,000 in donations.
The Waterloo City Council members turned in a unanimous vote April 18, 2016, reallocating $20,000 in federal CDBG money for the park. This set into motion a project that Appleman believes will change the lives of the community and the players themselves.
"Jed is always talking about how to go from a good team to a great team, and that is all about investing in more than just yourself," Appleman said. "We need to be leaders and ways to be a leader is going beyond football and doing more than what we were brought here to do."
Appleman, Elias Nissen, Ezra Szczyrbak, Austin Errthum, Michael Kuntz, Eli Dunne, Duncan Ferch, Blake Thomas, A.J. Allen, Marcus Weymiller, Willie Beamon, Clint Huemann and Eli Berregaard will be those leaders come the fall of 2016 when they project construction will get underway. Between now and then, the Panthers have a task of raising $5,000 in donations, a goal that Appleman sees the Panthers achieving and surpassing.
"Heather Olsen, the Director for the Center of Playground Safety, told us that only eight percent of playgrounds in Iowa are handicap accessible," Appleman said. "We originally had planned to change the sandbox to mulch, but mulch isn't accessible for wheelchairs, so if we raise more money, we will be able to put down a different base so that it will become handicap accessible."
This summer, the Panther sophomores plan to hit the ground running to start raising money, with all donations considered tax deductible, charitable gifts. While a partnership with the Waterloo Leisure Services Commission and the UNI football program will reward children in the area with a safe and fun place to be active, the student-athletes will get an experience of a lifetime.
"You see some colleges go to hospitals and read books to local schools, which is great and a really good idea, but we wanted to do something more permanent for the Cedar Valley," Appleman said. "We talked about how cool it would be to build a park because when we graduate and come back for class reunions or to watch games, we could take our own kids to the park."
The UNI football program kicks off its 2016 season on the road at Iowa State on Sept. 3 and although a date has not been set yet for construction on the playground to begin, the Panther sophomore class has a lot to be excited about this fall.
"It is something that we all really wanted to do," Appleman said. "It is about doing something bigger than all of us. We wanted to be more than just football players. We are a group of guys that when we put our minds together, we can accomplish anything."