JASON COOK HAD experience at this kind of labor. From the age of 10, he baled hay and shoveled horse and cow manure on his next-door neighbor’s farm in tiny Nokesville, Va.
Still, Cook never had experienced anything quite like filling sandbags for citizens of a community ravaged by a flooding river. Cook was one of 14 representatives of the South Carolina men’s and women’s track and field teams who came to the aid of Des Moines, Iowa, residents this past weekend.
“The big thing is that moments like that are more of what athletes will tend to remember,” said Lawrence Johnson, one of three USC assistant coaches who participated. “It was a tremendous bonding moment, and I think for years to come those individuals who participated will be able to share that experience.”
The genesis for a goodwill gesture that gained USC national acclaim was a Saturday morning walk by track coach Curtis Frye and sports information assistant Michelle Schmitt. The two often walk on the morning of big events, and Saturday was the finals of the NCAA championships.
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This morning was different. USC was among six teams evacuated from the Embassy Suites along the banks of the Des Moines River, which had swelled to the point of covering farmland the past week. The river now was creeping into downtown Des Moines.
Sensing that USC athletes needed a pick-me-up following disappointing showings earlier in the week, Schmitt suggested to Frye that a volunteer effort could rally the team’s spirit. Frye agreed and, while Schmitt sought avenues to help the Des Moines cause, put the challenge to his four team captains.
“There was no hesitation on their part,” Frye recalls.
Schmitt, athletic trainer Martha Sheperd and assistant coaches Johnson, Mike Sergent and Dee Quarles volunteered their efforts. The nine members of the team who had been eliminated from the track championships volunteered as well. They included Cook, Aaron Anderson, Johnny Dutch, Erik Heymann, Keith Hinnant, Brittney James, Jamil James, Ray Miley and Mike Zajec.
Schmitt first contacted the Des Moines United Way. From there, the USC contingent was directed to the Polk County Sherriff’s Department, which was coordinating sandbagging efforts.
The assignment was simple: Shovels were distributed and athletes joined Des Moines citizens to fill burlap bags with sand and place them in a bulldozer. From there the bags were transported to a dump truck, then sent off to a riverbed site.
USC representatives were interspersed with residents and the competition to quickly fill bags and load the dump trucks became fierce. Cook said his group began filling six bags per minute, all the while conversing with residents about the flood.
When one dump truck driver bellowed out “Game!” another answered with “Cocks!” Back and forth it went. “Game!” and “Cocks!” throughout the 2½ hours USC lent its effort.
Anderson worked closely with two Des Moines residents, one an Iowa graduate and the other from Iowa State. By the time Anderson returned to his hotel, he had gained two USC fans in Iowa. Both promised to purchase USC gear that afternoon and wear it to the championships Saturday evening.
Sure enough, the two Iowa men sought out Anderson.
“That’s what will stay with me most,” Anderson said. “That was the greatest moment for me.”
The experience was similar for Jamil James, an All-American sprinter from Trinidad who completed his fourth year with the USC team. James told Frye on numerous occasions that he got into athletics because he liked the idea of winning and basking in the glory.
“My whole objective when I came here was to have big goals and big dreams,” James says. “You want to win conference titles and national titles. You want to run fast on the biggest stage.
“But there was no feeling like when you walked into the Iowa stadium and somebody recognized you for helping them out.”
Frye says he repeats the message to his team often: Helping others will come back to help you many times over. It is the primary reason USC arranges volunteer activities for its athletes.
This one was different, though. There is something to be said for the spontaneity of public service. For one afternoon in middle America, USC athletes shined — not for what they did with their talent but for what they did with their hearts.