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Playing sports is one of the great joys in life. For those with disabilities, sports can be a difficult experience -- until they participate in events like the Special Olympics.

Another one of the joys in life is learning the joy of giving back to the community or a cause.

Zach Eisendrath
Zach Eisendrath

So it was no surprise when the University of Michigan Athletic Department team members that volunteered for Tuesday's (May 14) Special Olympics event at Saline High School returned to work Wednesday with a great attitude and big smiles on their faces.

Zach Eisendrath, assistant director of public and media relations, was the poster boy for the entire athletic department team.

When asked about the previous day's events he smiled and said, "It was awesome, it was incredible." He called these Special Olympians "real athletes" and said this is what "sports are all about."

The games are serious and competitive, and with the variations in talent, the volunteers work hard to make the games fun.

Zach, who works with the U-M football and men's tennis teams, had one young girl at bocce ball who couldn't speak. Physically he demonstrated how to throw the ball and where to throw it so she could enjoy the competition. In another bocce game, a young boy in a wheelchair knew exactly what to do. Zach played him straight up -- and lost. When Zach talked about the match, the smile grew, and his eyes lit up.

His counterparts from U-M who volunteered for the event came back to work with similar stories and feelings that matched the most beautiful day of the spring to date. The Special Olympians showed how they could overcome the roadblocks in their lives, and this U-M team came back to their offices with a positive attitude -- the type of attitude volunteerism can provide.

For Zach, the Special Olympics have a particular meaning. His little cousin has Down syndrome. Zach learned the art of volunteerism years ago, and this time he was excited to be part of giving back to his new community. It is part of his personality, and it creates the euphoric feeling that makes life rich and worthwhile. And every time he works a Special Olympics, he comes back more amazed than the last time.

It is almost impossible to oversell the Special Olympics. This is one sports event that lives up to the hype.

"I signed up for the event and then realized today's the day," said Eisendrath. "I went to the track, helped out, came back and thought wow, this was a wonderful day. I really felt like this was of one the most fulfilling days I had in quite a while."

A portion of the Special Olympics mission statement is to give "continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness and athletic skill, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community."

For the volunteers, participation in Special Olympics provides additional benefits. They have a better perspective of their own surroundings, and they just feel good.

Zach and the 80 U-M Athletic Department members didn't volunteer so they could feel better about themselves, but when they returned to work on Wednesday, the Special Olympics Spring Games helped make everyone feel a part of something bigger than oneself, and that made everyone smile.

We all seem to have a lot on our mind these days. Life seems so much more complicated. Not on a football Saturday though. It is a time to relax, escape and enjoy college football.

For some it is a time to give back to try and help others whose day-to-day lives are much more stressful yet so important to the way we live. This Saturday (Nov. 19) the U-M Athletic Department is having Military Appreciation Day to show its support and admiration for the all the branches of the armed services.

On a smaller scale, a group of tailgaters in the Crisler Arena Blue Lot parking area will do the same. On Saturday, they will bring together individuals from the 2-337th Training Support Battalion, also known as the Wolverine Battalion, to enjoy a tailgate experience and Michigan football.

This is not the public display of appreciation that everyone will see at Michigan Stadium. This is a show of appreciation by a few U-M Victors Club members who have been bringing together the Wolverine Battalion for almost three years.

It all started when Beth Bradley (U-M Athletic Development) received a request from a soldier's mom wanting to do something special for her son's command sergeant major, Marty Mieras, a huge Wolverine fan. The ball was signed and sent. The CSM was thrilled with this gift. Elated upon receiving the football, he noted he was coming back for some R&R.

"Beth asked us and another few families if we would be interested in hosting some members of the military," said tailgate crew member Warren Major. "We said yes and just kept it going.

"What's ironic is we didn't even have any idea the battalion's name was the Wolverines."

Other members of the tailgate crew are Warren's wife Cherie, Bob and Sally Elgin, Sarah Elgin, Bruno and Barb Jandasek, Brett and Krista Jandasek, and Herb and Linda Negendank.

Army reserve captain Joseph Sullivan, who works at Arbor Lakes and is contracted by U-M, and Bradley help coordinate the effort.

Military visit with Victors Club members at tailgate

It is not official; it is just something these families want to do to for the men and women in our military and especially those are returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Last year, we even had a tailgate on the road for all of them," said Major. "They have a Wolverine Battalion in Indiana too, and when we went down there last year, they even gave us a tour of their offices. Like the Wolverines here in Michigan, their offices are all painted maize and blue."

Selfridge AFB is the home for the local Wolverines, while the Indiana Wolverines are located in Camp Atterbury. (Currently, the Wolverine Battalion is headquartered in Waterford. It was moved from Selfridge after individuals suffered Legionnaires Disease in the building on the base.)

This year, there has been one appreciation tailgate, and tomorrow will be number two. The Wolverine Battalion is greatly appreciative. They gave the tailgating families a plaque engraved with the following words:

Award of Excellence for Your Support of the 2-337th TSB (2010) for Efforts and Enthusiasm and Generosity Greatly Appreciated by all of the Troops! Go Wolverines! Hooah!

Everyone responsible for the tailgate was also invited to the battalion's annual Dining Out Gala. There the tailgate crew was treated like royalty.

Next week at the Ohio State game, another member of the Wolverine Battalion will join the tailgate. First sergeant Mike Poll is coming home for a short R&R from Afghanistan. He's been there since May and will return to Afghanistan. His current tour of duty should end in May of 2012. He became a grandfather for the second time in October and will meet his new grandson when he's home.

This small tailgate crew is just trying to say thank you. Even before they can express it, the men and women from the Wolverine Battalion are the ones who are thanking them for opening up their hearts and making these Saturdays special.

Hooah to the men and women of the Wolverines!

A Soldier Gets His Wish

Snow, Snow, Snow

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The snowstorm of the century (according to news reports) has hit the eastern half of the United States, and here in Ann Arbor we are fortunate that we didn't receive the full brunt of the storm. We had the high winds and cold weather, but the snow accumulation was around half a foot, much less that many areas in the storm's path.

Living in Michigan, we are familiar with the inclement weather that plays a role in everyone's life, so we have plans in place for when the weather hits, and today in Ann Arbor those plans worked well.

This is a long way from the days when the athletic department had fewer staff, fewer teams and a smaller budget.

In the mid 1960s, a snowstorm hit Ann Arbor late in the football season. Fritz Crisler and Bump Elliott mobilized the student-athletes to shovel out Michigan Stadium and clean the surrounding area to make sure the game could be played.

In the early 1970s, another winter snowstorm hit and the Indiana-Michigan basketball game at Crisler Arena had to be moved back a day or so. The Hoosiers and coach Bob Knight were in town, but we could not get our fans safely to Crisler.

Today, we have more staff. We also have more teams and more ancillary issues (e.g., television). Fortunately, we do not have any scheduled events for tonight, but that didn't lessen the concerns as the storm approached.

Travel plans for the men's basketball and gymnastics teams plus a real concern for the Penn State women's basketball team to make it here safely from Happy Valley for Thursday night's game at Crisler Arena weighed heavily on our staff.

The men's basketball team was scheduled to bus to Columbus, Ohio, this evening. Instead the team left Tuesday night for tomorrow's televised game at Ohio State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Tomorrow's important women's basketball game at Crisler Arena (7 p.m. ET, BigTenNetwork.com) was also worrisome. Penn State was planning to arrive in Ann Arbor tonight. At the last minute, the PSU administration found a Tuesday evening flight, and the team is now awaiting Thursday night's game in an Ann Arbor hotel.

Fortunately, the "Snowmageddon" turned out to be a minor inconvenience in our area, and both basketball games will be played with few if any problems.

But the plans were in place just in case. And this time, we did not have to marshal any student-athletes to clean any stadiums.

Mock Rock Adds to Fundraising Efforts for 2011

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Flyer for Pizza House Event (PDF)
Flyer for Noodles & Company Event (PDF)

One of the most enjoyable events of each school year is Mock Rock, as the University of Michigan student-athletes get together to entertain a sellout crowd with their dance moves and crazy costumes and, at the same time, raise money for charity.

This year, to help reach its 2011 goal of raising $100,000 from donations and ticket sales from Mock Rock, the U-M Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) has expanded fundraising efforts by adding two Restaurant Days.

"We've never done anything like this before," said Mock Rock chair Jordan Sexton, a fifth-year senior on the women's gymnastics team. "We always set our fundraising goals high, and last year we raised $70,000 from Mock Rock but we think we can do better."

The first Restaurant Day is coming up this Wednesday (Jan. 26) at Pizza House (618 Church Street). Fifteen percent of all orders will go to Mock Rock if the customer presents the benefit flyer (download as PDF) in the restaurant or mentions Mock Rock when ordering for takeout or delivery. This is an all-day event.

The second event will be at Noodles & Company (320 South State Street) from 4-9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, with 25 percent of the bill going to Mock Rock if the customer mentions Mock Rock when ordering (download flyer as PDF).

"These restaurant fundraisers are a way to get the community involved a little more in the event and rally more student-athletes to the cause," said Sexton. "The generosity of these local businesses will help raise the profile of Mock Rock and hopefully bring in more money for three very deserving charities."

Three charities hand-picked by SAAC -- the Child and Family Life program at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Student-Athletes Leading Social Change (SALSC), and the Michigan Autism Partnership (MAP) -- will receive donations from SAAC from funds generated by Mock Rock, an annual variety show featuring skits from Michigan's varsity student-athletes. This year's event is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 16, starting at 7:30 p.m. at Hill Auditorium. Tickets will go on sale in early February.

SAAC is also accepting Mock Rock donations online at its website. Donors may specify a team to receive credit for the donation or select "None" to make a general donation.

For questions or information on corporate sponsorship, contact Taylor Day at tayday@umich.edu.

The Big Ten Network has come a long way since its inception in 2007.

Dave Revsine, Rick Pizzo, Mike Hall, Howard Griffith, Gus Johnson, et al are some of the names you might recognize. But what about Peter Saul, Adam Brewster, David Nows and Brad Hewlett?

Saul, Brewster, Nows and Hewlett may not be big names now, but all are hoping to become recognizable in the future. Currently, they are U-M students that cover Michigan sports for the Big Ten Network, and they cover it well.

Many years ago, WOLV-TV, Michigan's student-run TV station, brought a few Michigan sporting events to a small crowd on Comcast Channel 22. Ice hockey and women's basketball were the two sports that benefited from this coverage.

Today, the same basic idea is taking hold with the Big Ten Network. Instead of a few people in Washtenaw County viewing just a few events, these students are now able to show what they can do on a national stage.

Alex Prasad, a Michigan student, has helped build the Michigan "student" brand on the BTN. Prasad has become the unofficial executive producer for all Big Ten Student U productions that are done in Ann Arbor, with his co-producers Evan Dougherty, Peter Saul and Matthew Dupree. During these two terms, at least 40 events will be broadcast on www.bigtennetwork.com, with many of these events advancing to the network brand on the BTN.

"When we started off one year ago, we were just worrying about surviving," said Prasad. "If we could get a picture and some audio we were happy.

"Now, we are much more strategic and hopefully building for the future."

The idea to engage students to develop digital content for the BTN web site was the main idea behind this student program. Once the programming started to improve and the technology available to the Big Ten schools was leveraged by the BTN, the next step was network TV.

"We came across this opportunity to work on what was the best way to create streaming for the Internet with a 'Flypack' concept," said Rex Arends, BTN's director of technical operations. "We built it (equipment) and with the HD cameras and the CIC Internet connection available in the Big Ten, the quality of the video looked better than what came over the satellite."

There is very little compression needed for the HD files, and when BTN executives looked at what was coming across the control room monitors, he said, "Let's try it during the overnight hours."

The students set up, produce, direct and announce these sporting events. They use up to three cameras, have a video/audio suite, headsets, graphics package, announce box and scoring strip all built by the BTN. The network does add a quality control person in its Chicago control room to monitor every event.

The programming impressed so many other execs at the BTN that now the Student U broadcasts air in all parts of the day and even some fringe prime time.

Michigan does have some unique challenges to keep that quality broadcasting. Some other conference schools have broadcasting courses to help bring students into the program; U-M has to find volunteers.

"It is a unique challenge since we have no broadcasting program here at Michigan, so we have to recruit," said Prasad. "The lack of a program does provide one advantage: the students we get are highly motivated and passionate because they want to do this."

Like football and basketball teams, the competition is also heating up for these broadcast teams across the conference, and the passion of the U-M students has made the Wolverine broadcasts some of the best on the BTN.

"We are growing but we need more students to replace those who will be leaving," said Prasad. "If we can recruit more students, I see no reason why we shouldn't be the best in the Big Ten."

Interested in becoming part of the Student U team? Michigan is currently seeking students who are interested in the broadcasting field. The application deadline is Jan. 28, 2011.

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