As part of the "Play If Forward" program – a partnership between Ohio State's football program, the Ohio State Office of Student Life, Lowe's and local schools in Columbus – a good portion of the Buckeyes football team reported to Graham Expeditionary Middle School to donate a playground, a garden and to fix and improve existing play equipment.
The concept of the program was inspired by former OSU coach Woody Hayes' "Pay It Forward" legacy, and that prompted current head coach Urban Meyer to get his football team more involved in the local community. Meyer and others pledged $25,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to launch the program.
"It's community involvement, a premium placed on academics, community service, toughness and doing things the right way," Meyer said. "This is our way of adding on to that. Young people see the football team out here with the student body and I don't think they'll ever forget it."
Graham Expeditionary Middle School – otherwise known as "GEM" – was chosen to be the first to receive a new playground because the school has a mission to serve urban students in Central Ohio. The campus also happens to be on the fringe of Ohio State's campus.
The building, located at 140 E. 16th Ave., was originally opened in 1909 and was first named the Indianola Junior High School. It was the first junior high school in the nation and was added to the National Register for Historic Places in 1980.
Now equipped with new basketball hoops, a painted shed, a garden and other new or renovated play equipment, the football players said it was a blessing to do something positive for the community.
"Time really flies," tight end Jeff Heuerman told BSB. "I remember when I was just a kid and would look up to college athletes and now here I am. It was just so nice to come out here with the kids and make a difference. I know it meant a lot to them, and it means a lot to us to be able to come out there and do this."
Shortly after the work was completed, students enrolled in the school gathered around for a ceremony and Meyer and Heuerman addressed the crowd. Meyer said during his speech that it was a blessing for his football team to get involved in the local community, especially because Columbus has a unique connection to its college football program.
"I use this in recruiting as well – there are almost two million people in and around Columbus, Ohio, and there's no pro football team," Meyer said after the event. "I have to think that might be the only place in the country like that, and we want to make sure we give back. There's a reason why there are so many fans at everything we do – it's because there's no distraction.
"No. 2 is I've always felt this way and I learned it from Earle Bruce – for some reason football players start thinking they're something more than a student-athlete, and they're not. It's our job to make sure they remember that. Our guys, they get it. There's no pushback whatsoever to come here and spend all day with the students."