By Kevin Tankersley, BBA '93
Baylor alumni in pro sports give back to help those following in their footsteps.
During her 13 years as director of the Office of Access and Learning Accommodation, Dr. Sheila Graham Smith's job duties were pretty simple. She was to work with students throughout the university on any difficulties they may have, giving everyone a level playing field in the classroom. Her goal for the student-athletes she worked with was for them to see themselves as more than a sports figure.
"Everybody would look at [the student-athletes] and all they saw was, 'Oh, you're our shining star. You're our athlete. That's who you are,'" says Smith, BS '77, MS '96, EDD '99. "And I would encourage them and push them ... to discover the passion in their lives that was not athletic. They found that at Baylor, and Baylor was able to nurture that in them. That was my primary goal."
Memories of Baylor individuals like Smith have spurred several high-profile former student-athletes to give back to the University in significant ways. From the NBA (Brian Skinner) to the NFL (Gary Baxter, Fred Miller) to Major League Baseball (Jason Jennings, Kip Wells), a trend has developed in recent years that has seen a number of Bears in professional sports giving generously to Baylor to help the student-athletes who have come after them.
"In my years in the business, I have never heard of one institution having that kind of giveback," says Mike Cleary, who for the past 45 years has served as executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. "If you've got multiple athletes giving back, you're way ahead of the curve. They must have a very strong feeling for [Baylor], because it's not the norm."
Gifts like those from former student-athletes such as Skinner, Miller and others can be gamechangers for today's coaches and student-athletes, says Ian McCaw, Baylor's director of athletics.
"[Such gifts] demonstrate that our former letterwinners are appreciative of the opportunity that they were afforded at Baylor and are committed to helping those who are following them," he explains. "Also, when our former student-athletes make generous gifts to new facilities, it provides a valuable recruiting asset to our coaches who are able to illustrate how these individuals have excelled in professional sports or their chosen field and remained deeply committed to Baylor athletics."
Now in his 12th year in the NBA, Skinner, BA '98, has played for eight teams since being drafted in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft and is currently in his second stint with the Los Angeles Clippers. He gave a substantial gift to support two areas within the Simpson Athletics and Academic Center--the Skinner Academic Gallery and the Learning Lab, in honor of Smith.
"There were a couple of transitional people in my life who got me to where I am right now," Skinner says, "and this is one way of going back and showing my appreciation for what the university did--not just the university as a whole, but also people who were cornerstones in my life."
During his time at Baylor, Skinner says Smith was "pretty much like a surrogate mother for me. ... She was one of the main people in my life at that time who got me through college and wanted me to finish and get my degree."
Although Smith took medical retirement three years ago, she says she still keeps in touch with some of the athletes she worked with, receiving cards on Mother's Day, and phone calls and text messages at Christmas.
Like Skinner, Baxter--a three-year starter for one of the NFL's top defenses before injuries took their toll--says the inspiration behind his gift to the University was due partly to the influence of Smith.
"She influenced me to always better myself," says Baxter, BA '03. "That's exactly what I did. I loved Miss Sheila Graham Smith. She was a great inspiration and motivator for me."
Baxter's donation was directed to the Computer Academic Resource Center and the Defensive Back Meeting Room in the Simpson building.
"I take a lot of pride in my school. I had a lot of great experiences there," he says. "Me giving back, first and foremost, was for the defensive back room. For the defensive backs that are going to come through there, going into that room that other defensive backs went through on the way to great success in the NFL, I wanted some mojo to rub off."
Baxter was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the second round of the NFL draft and played four years there before signing a six-year, $30 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. In his second year with the Browns, he suffered a bizarre injury, tearing the patella tendon in both of his knees on one play in a game against the Denver Broncos.
After Baxter's injury, Walter Abercrombie, BS '86, MSED '92, director of the Baylor "B" Association for former letterwinners, and former Baylor football player Robin Jones, BA '91, visited Baxter as he was contemplating the possibility of a life without football.
"We spent a weekend and kind of put our arms around Gary and just loved on him and let him know we were there for him," Abercrombie says. "Gary had just signed one of the richest contracts for an NFL defensive back. We wanted to spend that time with him at a time when everybody was wanting to leave him. The next year, he came through with a large contribution for the computer room."
It's about relationships when it comes time to talk to former players about supporting their alma mater, Abercrombie said.
"As we continue on with Baylor being in the Big 12 Conference and having to compete with schools that have hundred million dollar budgets, we are going to have to depend on our athletes to help us in that regard," he says. "I don't think athletes will give back to any school if there isn't that feeling, that sentimental connection, to a university.
"When you have individuals like [Smith], who develop these relationships, these caring relationships with these athletes, it makes it easier for an athlete" to give, continues Abercrombie. "Fred Miller and I had a great relationship. I was somewhat of a mentor to him, so he felt comfortable enough with me to help him bring that money to the university. Same with Sheila and Gary Baxter and Brian Skinner."
'Baylor gave me so much'
Miller graduated from Baylor in 1995 with a degree in sociology and was a fifth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams a year later. He also played for the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears in a 13-year professional career that ended in 2008. Miller and his wife, Kimberly, MBA '92, have given substantially to Baylor to support athletic scholarships, the Baylor Bear Foundation, the practice facility and Grant Teaff Plaza at Floyd Casey Stadium.
"I feel that Baylor has given so much to me, it's my responsibility to help out and make it so much better for someone coming along," Miller says. "Several people were involved in getting things going. Walter was a huge inspiration in his help leading to this."
Miller says he and his wife chose for some of their gift to be used for academics because "I was the one growing up without a scholarship, and it would have been hard to go to school [without one]. I want to give other kids the same opportunity to better their lives."
Part of the Millers' donation went to the plaza because former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff "was such a huge inspiration in my life. I respect him and what he's done for Baylor. I wanted to honor him in that fashion."
Miller and Baxter have also given generously to support causes in the cities in which they played. While Miller was playing for the Titans, he and his wife gave $1 million to fund the Nurses for Newborns Foundation in Nashville, a non-profit dedicated to providing healthcare, education and parenting skills to at-risk families. At the time, it was the largest single-player donation given by a member of the NFL. In Baltimore, Baxter started the Gary Baxter Second Line of Defense Foundation at the Institute for Science and Health in an effort to fight childhood obesity.
Former Baylor baseball player Kip Wells--who has pitched in the major leagues for 11 years, finishing 2009 with the Cincinnati Reds--has established the Kip and Emily Wells Foundation, and that organization gave toward a new scoreboard at the Baylor Ballpark as well as to the Baseball Excellence Fund. One of Wells' former teammates, nine-year MLB veteran Jason Jennings, also gave a large gift for the scoreboard.
"Baylor gave me so much," Jennings says. "It gave me three of the most fun years of my life. I had the opportunity to better my game on the field and become a better person off the field. I can say with 100 percent confidence that there is no way I would have made it to the big leagues or been where I am today without Baylor."
Jennings, who was a first-round draft pick after his junior year and left Baylor 20 hours short of a diploma, was named National League Rookie of the Year in 2002. After spending six years with the Colorado Rockies, one with the Houston Astros and the past two seasons with the Texas Rangers, he signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A's in February. But he hasn't forgotten about those last few credits.
"I have plans to finish that up and get my degree from Baylor," he says.
Jennings notes that it's no secret that the salaries of professional athletes give them "the flexibility to give back and help out with lots of charities," a fact certainly not lost on Abercrombie, who had an eight-year NFL career himself.
"If I was advising an athlete, I would say focus on your retirement in terms of financial philosophy and focus on giving to meaningful causes," he says. At Baylor, "here's an opportunity, if you're going to give money, to give back to a university ... [and] create a legacy for your kids, until the end of time."