Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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SIU student athletes connect with community by giving back

Lylee Gibbs
Chris Presto and Amir Dwight high five after completing a day of volunteer work at the 150th anniversary celebration of Rendleman Orchard June 28, 2023 at Rendleman Orchard in Alto Pass, Illinois.

As hectic of a schedule that a student athlete has, they are continually advised to volunteer in the community they play for and represent.

“We are really trying to make a push to have our student athletes give back to our community because it’s our community that really supports our student athletes,” said Molly Hudgins, deputy athletic director for Academics and Student Services.

This community includes the entire southern Illinois region, not just the campus itself. Student athletes at SIU feel they have a responsibility to support the surrounding region and strive to do it better than any other athletic department in the country.


“All our student athletes are pushing each other to be out and volunteer in the community. We log the hours and we’re tracking the hours and making sure that we’re out there and our Salukis are visible and helping out all of southern Illinois,” Hudgins said.

This is not a new trend for student athletes at SIU. Men’s basketball head coach Bryan Mullins was instilled with the significance of such activities while he was a player for SIU.

“It was a big part of our program with coach [Chris] Lowery, and you know, this university, our program, this athletic department, it represents the southern Illinois region…” Mullins said. “We play a big role, and we want to make sure we’re always representing this community the right way, so we’ve got to give back as much as possible as a player.”

Mullins said the values he learned helped him to not take his role in the community for granted.

“Not in terms of the giving part, not in terms of the selflessness part, not in terms of representing the community the right way,” Mullins said. “…How grateful we all are as coaches and as student athletes. For everything that we have here as a program, for the resources that we have here, for the opportunity that we have to play in front of this incredible community every single season. You know, it’s a special place to be here, it’s special to be a Saluki.”

Mullins said it is imperative to be grateful and to give back to those in need, or to make something better than it is.

One way student athletes have done this recently was by attending NubAbility, a series of nonprofit sports camps hosted for young limb-different children so they can be around others like them and are treated equally as those who aren’t limb-different. Mullins said they’ve enjoyed being a part of this event every June. The children, he said, are unstoppable.


“They’re expected to shoot a basketball…catch a football…run a sprint and it doesn’t matter what difference they have physically, mentally, it’s so impressive,” Mullins said. “I love that our team’s able to do it every single summer.”

Freshman basketball player Sheridan Sharp is getting his first go-round of giving back to the southern Illinois community, and believes it’s beneficial for student athletes.

“Because basketball is a competitive sport, we can use it for many other advantages, like community service…so when we use the competitiveness as something else for good, I feel like that’s a good thing,” Sharp said.

Sharp enjoyed going around SIU’s campus and picking up trash with other athletes on campus and it allowed for some people in the community to come together.

“The best part is really just coming as one, being as one, and being in unity, coming together and just cleaning up our community,” Sharp said. “Because it’s all of ours, the fans, the basketball players, the teachers, we’re all one.”

The various activities that student athletes are involved in range from painting the white paws on the streets of Carbondale to volunteering at local animal shelters. But a common avenue of volunteering in the community is where the athletes are interacting with the next generation.

With hosting youth camps, visiting elementary schools or even stopping by a daycare, athletes and kids not much younger than them get gratification from spending time with each other in these settings.

SIU football player Nathan Torney said his favorite part is interacting with children.

“Mine would be helping out youth kids, like reading to them…and playing with them. I’ve done it probably 5 or 6 times since I’ve been here, and I just love every minute and seeing the smile on their face,” Torney said. “You just feel like a superhero when you walk in there and the way they treat you, so I love it.”

Being from Australia, Torney said he loves to learn about those that he meets through community service and when they come to games. It helps to bridge the gap between the athletes and the community.

“They’re a part of the team just as much as we are…I love seeing them come game day and getting to know them more individually, all different stories in life,” Torney said.

Youth sports camps allow kids to come and learn more about sports from college athletes.

Football defensive coordinator Antonio James completed his first year as a camp coordinator in June, and said the importance of the camps was for the children to enjoy themselves and learn from the athletes themselves.

“We want them to have fun, and then we just tried to teach them basic fundamentals of the game,” James said. “We have our players out there on the field…give those young kids a real experience of being around college athletes.”

James said although it is a collaborative process at the camps between players and coaches, he tries to stand back and let the student athletes step in when necessary.

“Sometimes our players may see a kid and pull them off to the side and help him out with this stance, or with something that’s going on in the drill that can help him out with a finer point,” James said. “Because I think those are the people that the community wants to engage with more so than us as coaches.”

James said the difference between the NFL and the college level is the opportunity for student athletes to connect with the community around them. Even though they may see them on television or watch them from the stands, they have a chance to interact with them and build a relationship where the student athletes aren’t distant figures.

“When you talk about a community like southern Illinois…you have a wide range of people who are familiar with the Saluki program…whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, track and all the other sports. So I think it’s huge that we are also giving back and being involved with them and giving them access to us,” James said. “…These guys come out and support us at the games, we should be able to do things to help support them as well.”

SIU wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup said any way to help the surrounding community is valuable and enjoyable for student athletes.

“Even just going around and picking up trash, or we get calls, some people need help, maybe moving houses or something, just anything anybody needs help with that we can help with, we enjoy,” he said.

Hartrup was one of several players who went to Giant City Elementary School during the football team’s recent bye week to help out during some P.E. classes for fourth- and fifth-graders. It was a quick turnaround process of getting the student athletes in to spend some time with the kids.

The video coordinator and director of multimedia for the football team, Chris Gillespie, stopped at the school on the Monday of the team’s bye week, introduced himself, and the players were able to come in that Friday. The school’s superintendent and principal Khris Mason described the response it had on the students.

“It was absolutely awesome, they really, really, really love their P.E. teacher but having the opportunity to work with athletes who are doing it on a day-in, day-out basis and kind of seeing them in a different light,” Mason said.

The players were only there for 90 minutes, but got the opportunity to go through different stations with the kids where they had throwing competitions, footwork drills, and practiced their stances on the offensive and defensive live.

Whether it’s picking up trash, coaching at youth camps or visiting schools, the athletic department’s program of giving back to the southern Illinois community goes a long way of making the region feel more like a family.

“I think it just helps build that partnership, you know. So with the local schools, we’re maybe 5 minutes away from campus and it fosters that community that hey, the kids here are Giant City Giants, they’ll someday be CCHS [Carbondale Community High School] Terriers, but we’re all a part of Saluki Nation,” Mason said.

Sports reporter Howard Woodard can be reached at [email protected].

To stay up to date on all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.  


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