Sam Schaaf, an active duty solider in the Air Force, has served his country for more than three years, and for most of that time he’s been stationed at a base in Germany. Because of this, Schaaf doesn’t see his family much, returning home to Altoona, Wisconsin, just once or twice a year.
Despite never having been to a game, Schaaf is a huge University of Wisconsin men’s basketball fan. “I love the Badgers! I try and watch as many games as possible,” Schaaf told USA TODAY College.
Unfortunately, being overseas means that Schaaf doesn’t get to watch most of the games. That’s why during his most recent trip home, his mother, Deb, wanted to surprise him by taking him to his first game.
Deb Schaaf had what she thought was a far-fetched idea of not only taking her son to a game, but also giving him an opportunity to get a behind the scenes tour of Badger stadium. So she emailed Greg Gard, the Wisconsin men’s basketball coach, to see if her vision was possible. “I knew my son was coming home from Germany for only a week, and this was the only game I knew we’d be able to get to this year. So I just sent Coach Gard an email saying, ‘Is there any way that we could possibly tour the Kohl Center?’,” she recalled.
To her surprise, Coach Gard forwarded her email to Badgers Give Back, an organization dedicated solely to organizing charity events attended by Wisconsin student athletes. The organization not only got Schaaf, his mom and his sister a behind-the-scenes tour, but also hooked the family up with much more: court side seats, an autographed basketball, access to the pregame warm-up and the opportunity to meet players and coaches.
Deb Schaaf got the news that all of this was going to happen through an email. “I was at work and I was just reading the email. I was shaking, I was so excited,” she said. She was surprised too, because she wasn’t even sure Gard would get her message. “So when I got an email back from the liaison, I was just floored. I was excited and crying and just so happy!” she told USA TODAY College.
But she decided to keep it a secret for her son. When Schaaf got home about two weeks later, she told him everything. The next day they went to the Kohl Center for the game.
The family was smiling almost nonstop, standing on the basketball court before the game.
Deb Schaaf seemed excited both for the game and to be there with her son. “He’s only home for seven days, and then I won’t see him probably for eight, nine months. And that’s a maybe. He might be home for Christmas. He might not. I just don’t know when I’ll see him again. It’s usually once, maybe twice a year,” she said. “I’m just so excited for the whole experience. I’m just really excited to be able to share this with my son,” she said, as she held back tears.
Her son seemed grateful to his mom and, being a huge Badger fan, excited to watch them play live. “I’m really happy that she did it and thankful for it,” Schaaf said. “Just, hopefully, the Badgers win. That’s all I care about,” he added.
Wisconsin beat Maryland 71-60.
WISH UPON A BADGER AND CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL VISITS
According to Jackie Davenport, the Director of Community Relations for Badgers Give Back, the program started around four years ago. Although University of Wisconsin student athletes have been giving back to the Madison community for over 20 years, there wasn’t an organized program until then.
Today, around 70% of the student athletes at Wisconsin volunteer to be part of the program, Davenport said. The athletes volunteer all over Madison at places such as schools, hospitals, food pantries and senior centers.
Badgers Give Back’s program Wish Upon a Badger — similar to the Make-a-Wish Foundation — is what the Schaaf family experienced. Davenport said that when the program started a few years ago, it was organizing about two experiences a year. Next year they plan on doing 16 or more.
Related: Watch: Girl gives away her Make-A-Wish to kids who need shoes
Davenport loves the reaction of the community when they see student athletes giving back. “I think it’s really cool because it gets people to see student athletes in a different light. So you’re used to seeing them on the court or on the field, and you think of them in that manner, and then once they step out of there, they come into your classroom or they go to the senior center or they go to Children’s Hospital, and they’re interacting with them in a different way. It makes student athletes more real, like they’re a real person,” Davenport told USA TODAY College.