On a recent Thursday morning, Amy Hoying stood in East Columbus Elementary School and asked if any of the close to 20 second-graders in front of her liked to watch sports.
"I like soccer," one immediately answered with the eager nature typical of 7-year-olds.
Given that the Ohio State football team was 6-0 at the time and that Hoying is the wife of OSU letter-winning quarterback Tom Hoying, it was almost a given that the talk moved on to discuss the gridiron as well.
But the much more important question Hoying asked the students was one of the last ones.
"How many of you read every night?" Hoying asked.
Immediately, every hand in the room shot up toward the ceiling.
That quickly brought a smile to the face of Hoying, the program director for the 2nd & 7 Foundation, the nonprofit founded by former Ohio State players Ryan Miller, Mike Vrabel and Luke Fickell that aims to, in its own words, tackle illiteracy.
Well into its second decade, the foundation takes student-athletes into economically disadvantaged elementary schools across central Ohio twice a week throughout the school year to read to kids and deliver books that students can take home. On this day, Hoying was accompanied by Ohio State gymnasts Anna Hill and Sarah Grady, not to mention a group of softball players from Ohio Dominican University as well as an observer who was considering implementing the program in northeast Ohio.
When Hill finished reading the book, the sixth published by the foundation as part of a now-annual process, the handful of second-graders seated around her applauded before the group discussed the theme of the book, "Kindness is contagious."
Within an hour, the visit was over, but the impact will likely last for some time to come both for the young children as well as the student-athletes doing the reading.
"It's a really neat experience," Grady said. "I love coming and hanging out with these kids. You ask them questions and they instantly respond. They're so full of enthusiasm."
Legendary football coach Woody Hayes was fond of the saying, "You can never pay back, but you can always pay forward," and the 2nd & 7 Foundation is yet another example of that message becoming ingrained in the Ohio State athletics department.
Over the past 14 years, what was once an admittedly disorganized effort by three former football players has handed out more than 100,000 children's books to second-graders across not just central Ohio but the country – and its growth shows no sign of slowing down.
"It's gone way beyond my wildest imagination," Miller told BSB.
Miller first came up with the idea in 1999 after he and Fickell had concluded short NFL careers and were living in the central Ohio area. Thinking back on his time at Ohio State, the former linebacker had the urge to give back, just as he did during his time inside the Buckeye football program.
"Some of the stuff we did when we were with Ohio State, some of the community outreach initiatives that they had, while they weren't super frequent, they were often enough that I remembered when I read to kids, that was one of the things that I felt was probably most beneficial not only to the kids but to me personally," Miller said.
"So I said, ‘Hey, do you want to try to do that again? And maybe we can instead of just reading to the kids, we can give them a book.' Mike was like, ‘Let's do it.' "
It sounds simple enough, but the three soon realized it was easier said than done. Immediately, there were some obvious questions that needed answered – chief among them, how many books should they buy, and how would they pay for them, anyway?
When it came to funding, the decision was made to host a football camp near Fickell's home in Westerville. Around 45 kids were charged $50 apiece to attend what was a lightly promoted event.
"We didn't really know what we were doing," Miller says now.
But from a humble acorn, a mighty tree would grow. The camp generated enough revenue that Miller was able to go to a Borders bookstore and buy about 450 books – all different titles and different kinds.
"The next day I just started calling principals of elementary schools in Columbus and asked, ‘Hey, would you guys be available for some former Buckeyes to come read to the kids?' " Miller said. "Some principals thought I was crazy, some didn't have time for me. It was kind of a tough row to hoe a little bit, but by the end of the week there were seven schools that we could go read to, and that basically took care of all of those books."
The former OSU defenders jumped in Miller's truck and visited students at four schools one day and three the next. And when Miller came up with the idea to create a nonprofit to keep the efforts alive, the fact that the three had visited second-graders at seven different schools led to a perfect name for the foundation.
"It's not like it's a dire need, like it's fourth-and-1 or something," Fickell, now OSU's defensive coordinator, told BSB. "But the reality is we picked literacy, and it's that point in a kid's life where they have to make a decision in how important things are to them. A lot of times, athletes are role models. We can repeat the same thing that maybe their parents say, and maybe it sinks a little deeper because we wear the scarlet and gray."
In the early years, the three did all of the reading following the same model, using the proceeds from the football camp each year to buy books before fitting in as many readings as possible into their schedules.
Fickell pointed to Vrabel as one of the driving forces behind the early success of the foundation, noting that the three-time Super Bowl champion used his offseason time to do as many of the readings as possible – important because both Miller and Fickell were finding themselves with growing careers – and also reached out to connections in business to benefit the foundation.
"As a professional athlete back at that time, you can use that platform to build good foundations and build charities, and that's what we did," Vrabel told BSB.
In 2004, the annual Celebrity 8-Ball Shootout – another fund-raiser – was added, but the foundation truly took off when Miller approached Gene Smith early in the athletics director's tenure.
"Each year it kept growing to the point where you just physically couldn't get to every school anymore," Miller said. "I went to Gene Smith and he was just great. He was like, ‘This is a great program. Why don't we make it one of our initiatives for our student-athletes to read on Thursdays and Fridays?' "
Writing A Book
As the program expanded, it found a natural leader in Hoying, who worked in public relations with The Limited Brands before leaving her job to raise her three children. She joined the foundation seven years ago, first by volunteering before eventually becoming the organization's lone full-time employee.
"I was like, ‘I'm home, the kids are little, I can help,' " she said. "It became a perfect fit." So much so that when the organization realized it was cheaper to print and distribute its own books rather than buy the work of others, Hoying became one of the people entrusted – along with Miller's sister, Leah, a teacher in Upper Arlington – with doing much of the writing.
Members of the foundation meet each year to come up with ideas for the content of the books, which are illustrated by Hoying's neighbor, Jason Tharp. The first book, "The Hog Mollies and the Pickle Pie Party," was inspired by a story that Kathy Daniels – the wife of the late OSU assistant Joe Daniels – told her children growing up.
The book was published in 2008 and introduced the "Hog Mollies," the series' central characters named Hoppy, Harley, Sprout and Duke, the former two being nods to the illustrious Ohio State gridiron history.
"It's so fun," Hoying said. "We as a group come up with ideas and themes, and Leah and I break off and write the books because you can't have eight people writing a book, and she and I just work really well together. Then having Jason as my neighbor, I can just be like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?'
"My oldest son is my biggest critic, so I'll be like, ‘What do you think about this?' And he's like, ‘No, that doesn't make sense,' so we'll go back and change it. Sometimes we find ourselves trying to be too clever or too fun with words, then we're like, ‘They're second-graders.' "
The foundation has released a book each year since the initial effort, giving it six in total. This year's effort, "The Hog Mollies and the Great Golden Gizmo," carries an anti-bullying message, not to mention a new way for the program to have a lasting impact in each classroom. The foundation had special gold disposable cameras produced like the ones in the book that are used to capture acts of kindness, and the cameras are left with classroom teachers after each reading. In addition, each class is presented with a poster that includes a written pledge that the students will do their homework and read every night.
"We try to give them other things so that they will remember us far beyond when we leave," Miller said.
For such ideas, the 2nd & 7 Foundation has found itself being honored with numerous awards. In September, it was one of 10 programs in the nation to earn commendation from the American Association of School Librarians. In addition, the Columbus chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame presented the foundation with its highest honor, the Ohio Gold award, in 2012, making it the first organization to earn the award.
In addition, the foundation continues to grow well beyond the Columbus area. Satellite programs – many of them implemented by former OSU coaches or administrators – are active at Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Illinois, North Carolina, N.C. State and Toledo, and a program in Albuquerque, N.M., uses local high school athletes to do the reading.
"I think it helps (the kids) aspire to do something when they grow older," said Debra Thornwell, one of the East Columbus teachers visited in early October. "It shows them that even though you're older, you still have to read to succeed. It's an excellent idea."
Everyone Chips In
When Ohio State first became involved with sending student-athletes to 2nd & 7 events, there was a quick learning curve. Hoying told of having to scramble to call coaches on Wednesday nights to beg them to send student-athletes the next day, but as players and coaches became familiar with the program, it simply became part of the athletics department's culture.
"I don't have to do that anymore because every coach knows," Hoying said. "Ryan and I present at the fall coaches meeting. They know that at Thursdays and Fridays at 10 o'clock in central Ohio, there's a place for their student-athletes to go pay it forward."
Once the football season ends each year, members of the football team are among those at the forefront of the volunteer efforts.
"I love it," long snapper Bryce Haynes said. "I think it's really cool because I feel like you can make a big impact on some of their lives. If you've touched one kid's life, that's pretty cool. That's what I hope to do."
Haynes said his best school visit among the 15 or so that he's done was a trip to Liberty Elementary in Worthington, where Kerry Coombs' wife, Holly, is the principal.
"Oh my gosh, they have the most intense Ohio State spirit of any of them," Haynes said. "She gets them all excited for it. It's so cool. All the kids are into it. They're all wearing their Ohio State gear. It's a good time."
Junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett has made multiple visits to local schools and has worked as a counselor at the annual football camp, which has grown exponentially from its small beginnings.
"Camps are a ton of fun," he said. "I always go there like, ‘All right, I'm going to try not to sweat, I just got done with a big workout,' then I'm running around and yelling, just having a great time. Those kids always have a lot of energy, and you love being with your teammates encouraging the kids and competing and teaching them. It's a great time."
Both the three-day football camp and the eight-ball tournament are held each summer, and such notable names as John Cooper, Kirk Herbstreit, Joey Galloway and Bobby Carpenter have chipped in along the way.
Once a whim of three former OSU football players, the program is now a fixture in not just the Ohio State community but the central Ohio community as well.
"We're giving out 15-to-20,000 books a year to different schools," said Vrabel, now a third-year assistant coach at OSU. "There will be a representative of the 2nd & 7 Foundation as well as a student-athlete from Ohio State in schools on every Thursday and Friday throughout the school year at 10 a.m. I think it's amazing, but it's also a lot of hard work from a lot of good people."
If that sounds like the message for another children's book, it very well could be.