It is easy to lose sight of the things that matter in life in the small bubble of competitive collegiate sports. Preseasons and postseasons sandwich some of the best times in college for Tufts athletes, but even so, the athletic community continues to give back in ways that make a difference in people’s lives year round.
Team IMPACT is a program aimed at connecting children battling serious illnesses with college athletes to help form precious relationships between them. Since its founding in 2011, various Tufts teams have been involved with the program, including the football team, the men’s and women’s soccer, basketball and lacrosse teams, as well as the baseball and softball teams.
According to Team IMPACT co-founder Jay Calnan (E ’87), it was Tufts’ early support for the organization that allows it to thrive today, in the shape of the 1,600 kids drafted into different colleges in every state in the continental United States. It’s all the more heartwarming that five of Team IMPACT’s Board of Directors attended Tufts, including Dan Kraft (LA ’87).
For both Calnan and Kraft, both former Tufts athletes, the decision to create Team IMPACT was a personal and simple one. Calnan grew up with a younger brother with medical issues, while Kraft’s family has been heavily involved in philanthropy. Both Calnan and Kraft knew that Tufts’ emphasis on civic engagement cemented Team IMPACT’s place in the school’s community.
“Tufts does a really good job in recruiting athletes who have an understanding of how important academics are on campus but also a strong understanding of empathy and how important it is to engage in the community,” Calnan said. “The leadership of [Director of Athletics] John Morris, [Associate Athletic Director] John Casey and all the coaches that we’re working with … look for the right fit for student-athletes that involves excelling in the classroom, on the field and excelling in the community, and that empathy is something that I understand is a part of the recruiting process.”
Coach Martha Whiting, whose women’s soccer team was one of the first to support the Team IMPACT program, said that Team IMPACT has grown substantially during her time at Tufts.
“Our first draft day was literally at a summer league game in July where 10 of our girls were playing, and we had a cake and we met Joli [Vega] and her family. It was really sweet,” Whiting said. “It’s grown into our last draft day [with Emily Matarese last year]: It was in the film room, we had a letter of intent, we had a NCAA background [and] we had a big table, so the way and the amount that it has grown in that short amount of time is really amazing.”
The football team’s ‘draftee’ is 16-year-old Zack Cummings from Saugus, Mass., who is fighting acute lymphoblastic lymphoma. For senior offensive lineman Dan Dewing, Cummings’ draft day was his favorite memory of Team IMPACT.
According to Dewing, coach Jay Civetti had the players put up a picture in their locker at the beginning of the year about something that they were grateful for, and for Dewing, the choice of picture was obvious.
“Coach Civetti believes that you can’t be ungrateful and happy at the same time,” Dewing said. “The picture I have up there is the day of the draft. We went down to Gillette [Stadium], we had our football kickoff at Gillette and we drafted Zack. The news cameras were there, a few former Pats and cheerleaders were there. They brought [Zack] up and met [Patriots chairman and CEO] Robert Kraft, showed him Tom Brady’s Super Bowl ring. The kid’s face was glowing the whole day, it was unbelievable.”
Both Dewing and senior quarterback and co-captain Ryan McDonald said that they make it a point to head to Cummings’ house to catch “Thursday Night Football” with him. McDonald added that Cummings brings positive energy and fighting spirit to the team.
“One of my favorite memories hands down has to be one Thursday night walking in — I had a little bit of a limp because I was hurting from the game the week before and he’s like ‘Hey man are you okay, I noticed you’re limping’,” McDonald said. “I was like, ‘Yeah just gotta get past it, we’re tough guys.’ He goes to me, ‘You’re so tough’, and I say to him, ‘Zach, you’re one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met, and I gain my strength from you so never change.’ That’s just his caring mentality is awesome to be around all the time. I would say hands down that he cares more about Tufts football than he cares about himself.”
Whiting also said that it is the players, rather than the coaching staff, who take the lead on planning activities with their Team IMPACT teammates. The women’s soccer team usually plays Duck Duck Goose, tie-dyes shirts, watches movies or picks out stickers with their teammate. Senior goalkeeper Emily Bowers said taking part in these activities have been important for her development as an athlete.
“It’s provided perspective,” Bowers said. “We play soccer because we love it. Having an impact player on our team opens your eyes to the fact that life’s bigger. There are people outside of soccer, and you’re not going to be exposed to them at Tufts unless you’re a part of those programs. It’s been a really cool Tufts experience, and I’m really glad soccer is part of it, too. It’s been cool for her to know us athletes, too. It brings a lightness to soccer I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”
Civetti said that the program has helped shaped the hearts and minds of the young athletes.
“I think most of the people look at it from the outside and say, ‘What a great thing for that young person and their families,’” Civetti said. “But the truth of the matter is our players and coaches, and the university gets a lot out of it too, whether it’s learning about humility, learning about just the general human condition and being there for people in times of need and in times of sorrow and times of joy. I think it’s a tremendous and really special organization that allows people to truly be able to feel grateful for what they have and remind us how lucky we are, how grateful we should be for what we have.”
Athletes’ participation in the program also benefits families. Kraft, himself a father of three children, said the proudest legacy of the program was the impact it has left on the children and their parents.
“As parents, you want to see your kids happy and part of something that makes them feel good and feel part of a community,” Kraft said. “When you have a kid that’s been dealt the unlucky card, these kids can’t participate for the most part in those extracurricular activities because a) they just can’t physically … do it or b) they’re going for treatments and their schedules are just thrown so off. What this really does is that it gives parents a chance to see their kids laugh and smile again and be part of a team, part of a group [and gives] role models and mentors [to] these kids, as well, who they look up to … as friends.”
Another significant program that Tufts athletes have been involved in for a period of time now is the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay (BBBSMB) program. The program pairs athletes with a little ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ in a local elementary school and athletes visit them to hang out with their little brother or sister once a week. While the Leonard Carmichael Society at Tufts has a partnership with the organization, Tufts athletics also has its own relationship with the organization.
According to Casey, Tufts’ relationship with the organization started around 2013, when it looked for support as it grew into East Cambridge. Upon hearing what the organization stood for, Casey and his team were on board.
“We had two guys, Max Freccia [LA ’14] and Christian Sbily [LA ’14], who led the charge on that one for us and they both took a lot of initiative, and we wound up having 10 of our guys do it that first year,” Casey said. “They came back and told the rest of their teammates how awesome it was … Consistently, we’ve had 10 to 12 guys every year do it, and now the program has expanded into Medford with many programs jumping in.”
Other Tufts programs that are involved in BBBSMB include the Tufts women’s basketball program. Given Tufts athletics’ growing commitment to the program, BBBSMB launched a new program with the Columbus Elementary School in 2016 on top of its other partnership with Peabody Elementary School.
Junior guard/forward and co-captain Erica DeCandido, whose ‘little’ attends Columbus Elementary School, said that she usually goes down to the school for an hour on Friday mornings with the rest of her teammates and spends time with her at recess or in the computer lab.
“I think that being a student-athlete, you kind of get hooked into basketball and school all the time, so it’s kind of a nice break, too — it’s refreshing,” DeCandido said. “My little actually doesn’t really like sports and she likes more artsy things and being on the computer, so it’s kind of like a good break from everything, you realize how other people are and how other people live.”
Senior guard and co-captain Jac Knapp said that about 10 members of her team are involved with the program and that her love for helping children inspires her to give back.
“I absolutely love kids — just being there for them and giving them someone they can look up to and someone to talk [to] if they don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to their family members,” Knapp said. “I kind of see it as helping them out by being a friend for them. It’s a nice break from college and basketball and a crazy life here to get to go … to an elementary school and spend time with your little brother and sister.”
Knapp said the program helped her become a better person for her ‘little.’
“It’s helped me be able to take situations I’ve dealt with growing up and provide that advice to my little sister and put it in a way that they understand,” Knapp said. “It is kind of nice to take experiences that you’ve had when you were younger and relate to them whatever it may be.”
Both Team IMPACT and BBBSMB have grown to have greater importance in the Tufts athletics community. And as this Thanksgiving season comes along, it’s perhaps an important reminder to be grateful for the important things in life — however ‘little.’