Community service remains bedrock of Demons athletic program

Northwestern State football players smile while collecting donations at the annual Radio M*A*S*H toy drive in Natchitoches in December. Credit: NSU Athletics

In less than 30 days, the Northwestern State athletics department will welcome the 2019-2020 athletic year, which brings with a chance for success both inside and outside the athletic arena.

For the Demons and Lady Demons, that means attempting to improve on another stellar individual and team year of community service and engagement.

Northwestern State student-athletes donated 4,458 hours of community service during the 2018-19 campaign while NSU coaches and staff added an additional 1,810 hours of community service and engagement.

“With community service and engagement being long-term staples of the NSU athletic program, I am proud of our current student-athletes, coaches and staff for sustaining that platform by continuing to give of themselves for the benefit of others,” said NSU Director of Athletics Greg Burke, who leads by example through his involvement in a number of civic and community service organizations.

“This focus is not something that started here a few years ago. Rather, it dates back well over a decade ago to a time when our ‘Victorious For Life’ program had its genesis, and community service was one of the main tenants of that program, which is designed to prepare our student-athletes for life after graduation through personal and career development.”

The continued largesse of community service hours falls in line with Burke’s core goals for the athletic department, and NSU student-athletes have received national recognition for their off-the-field endeavors.

Senior offensive lineman Chris Zirkle was chosen from more than 2,500 student-athletes as the Southland Conference’s male representative for the NCAA Leadership Conference, held in April in Orlando, Florida.

This past week, Zirkle was announced as a nominee for the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team, giving Northwestern State its second nominee in the past four seasons (JeMarcus Marshall, 2016).

Zirkle’s recent honors continued the legacy that was enhanced with the introduction of the Victorious For Life program.

Since 2011, Northwestern State has seen linebacker Yaser Elqutub voted as the captain on the 2011 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and Demon basketball guard Sabri Thompson earn a spot on the 2017 Allstate National Association of Basketball Coaches Good Works Team, making him one of five Division I men’s basketball players selected that season.

“Servant leadership is an integral part of the leadership development process we work to incorporate in our student-athlete development programming on a daily basis,” Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development Kaitlyn McCanna said. “By participating in a variety of community service opportunities throughout the year, student-athletes are able to connect with the Natchitoches community and surrounding areas on a deeper level while hopefully developing a lifelong love of giving back.”

That fact is not lost on most NSU student-athletes, especially the members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

“My time on SAAC has been a constant learning process from first attending the meetings as a representative of the volleyball team to now being elected as its president,” senior Megan Lohmiller said. “I have learned there are so many opportunities to give back to our Natchitoches community. It truly does make an impact on the people living in this town. It shows that we athletes respect and appreciate all the support we receive from alumni, residents, students, and teachers. Community service allows us to give back to the ones who allow us to be student-athletes.”

Since the Southland Conference began the Steve McCarty Citizenship Award in 2007, Northwestern State student-athletes have taken home nine of the 26 such honors, a conference high.

Northwestern State has been honored for its department-wide commitment to service as well. NSU won the inaugural “Southland Strong” Community Service Award and has placed in the top four in four of the five years of the award’s existence.

“The student-athletes representing their individual teams in our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee have really taken this organization to a new level,” McCanna said. “This is the group that set the benchmark of reaching more than 5,000 hours of community service annually, and with the momentum of coming off close to 4,500 hours this past year, there is no doubt they’ll look to meet or exceed this goal in the upcoming year.”

It is a goal that brings a smile to Burke’s face.

“In my little Ohio hometown of Alliance, I watched my parents – while raising four children – dedicate time for the betterment of the community, and it was a lesson well-learned and one I feel is important to impart to today’s youth so they value the importance of ‘paying forward’ the opportunities they are provided,” he said. “It is especially pleasing to see the impact our student-athletes have on the Natchitoches community in ways which towns and cities without a university are not able to benefit.”