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For NCAA Honors recipients, college sports opens doors to lifetime of success

2016 NCAA Honors recipients.

Standing before a crowd of nearly 850 people in San Antonio Friday evening, Peter Ueberroth recalled a simple phone call made just weeks before his high school graduation and can’t help but wonder “what if?”

What if then-San Jose State University water polo coach Ed Rudloff never picked up the phone and dialed Ueberroth’s high school football coach for a conversation on potential recruits? What if the football coach hadn’t mentioned Ueberroth – the athlete on his team who could both throw a ball and swim? Where would Ueberroth be today if he hadn’t proceeded to try out for the San Jose State water polo team and accept a scholarship to the university?

Now 78, Ueberroth can say with certainty that he wouldn’t have gone to college, he wouldn’t have met his wife and, of course, he wouldn’t be standing where he was this night: on stage at the NCAA Honors Celebration as part of the 2016 NCAA Convention, accepting the Association’s highest honor. The businessman was named the winner of the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award for his accomplished career and continued commitment to athletics. In the decades since he graduated from San Jose State, he has served as the sixth commissioner of Major League Baseball, the organizer of the 1984 Summer Olympics and the chairman of the United States Olympic Committee. Currently, Ueberroth is chairman of the Contrarian Group, a private equity and consulting firm from which he has no plans to retire.

“If it wasn’t for San Jose State, I would have done something else with my life entirely,” Ueberroth said. “Universities are changing lives all the time for young athletes.”

Ueberroth’s award capped a night full of inspiring stories and successes of former student-athletes. Earlier, the parents of Lauren Hill, the former Mount St. Joseph University basketball player who died last year after a battle with an inoperable brain tumor, accepted an NCAA Inspiration Award on her behalf. “I don’t think Lauren really grasped the impact she had,” Lisa Hill said. “Her story went global … and we’re really blessed for her to have had the opportunity to be a voice and accomplish everything she was able to accomplish.”

O.J. Brigance, a former football player at Rice University who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2007, also was honored with an Inspiration Award for his strength and determination in battling the debilitating disease. The crowd grew silent when Brigance accepted the award from his wheelchair, using a computerized voice to communicate his appreciation and share his vision for impacting others.  

The Honors Celebration also shed light on six NCAA Silver Anniversary Award winners, a recognition for accomplished former student-athletes 25 years after the conclusion of their college careers. The winners were: Abby Cheng, a former women’s volleyball player and biological sciences major at Arkansas State University, who now works with the Science Club for Girls, a nonprofit; Chris Howard, a former football player and political science major at the U.S. Air Force Academy, who will become the president of Robert Morris University in February; Joé Juneau, an ice hockey player and aeronautical engineering major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who founded a youth hockey development program after a career in the NHL; Russell Maryland, a former football player and psychology major at the University of Miami, who followed his NFL career with involvement in various youth and football development programs; Dikembe Mutombo, a former basketball player and linguistics and diplomacy major from Georgetown University, who was named 2014 Humanitarian of the Year by the NBA for his work in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Steve Smith, a former basketball player and interdisciplinary social science major from Michigan State University, who played in the NBA before becoming a sports broadcaster.

The NCAA also presented its Today’s Top 10 Award to 2014-15 graduates who excelled on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Colleen Quigley, a runner from Florida State University, was invigorated by the afternoon spent getting to know the other honorees: “To be in the room with people who are 25 years out from their college careers and to hear all their stories is… wow, really inspirational.”

Other winners of the Today’s Top 10 Award were Ana Bogdanovski, a Johns Hopkins University swimmer; Matt Brown, Pennsylvania State University wrestler; Lucy Cheadle, a Washington University in St. Louis runner; John Coleman, a Clarkson University basketball and baseball player; Georgia Dabritz, a University of Utah gymnast; Kristin Day, a Clarion University of Pennsylvania diver; Ruben Gimenez, a University of Bridgeport swimmer; Kendra Harrison, a University of Kentucky hurdler; and Zach Zenner, a South Dakota State University football player.