The Eastern Michigan University women’s basketball team may not be having the best season so far, but there are more important things happening than winning basketball games. Such is the case after tragedies like the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. EMU coach Tory Verdi spent many years of his life nearby, so the town and the people affected are very close to his heart.
“When this event took place, obviously we were devastated by it and affected by it,” Verdi said. “I grew up there; coached there. My first coaching experiences took place right down the road as a head varsity basketball coach at Pomp Rock High School, and then later left there to go to Western Connecticut State in Danbury which is less than 10 miles right down the road. My wife is from Brookfield which is five miles right down the road, so we knew of families who were affected and so forth.”
At the time of the shooting, Verdi and the team were on a road trip, but all the same Verdi was quick in his desire to help the people affected.
“I turned to my staff and said, ‘We have to do something.’ At that point in time, we didn’t know exactly what and how, but we were going to do something,” Verdi said.
It wasn’t until Verdi talked things over with his wife that things became clearer.
“I proposed an idea to my wife that we could put on a basketball clinic, but [I thought] there’s got to be another piece to it,” Verdi said. “And that piece was the carnival side … I envisioned kids running around and having a ton of fun, and just wanted to give them the opportunity to just be kids … run around and have fun and not think about anything. So that’s kind of how it developed.”
With one obstacle cleared, Verdi next had to receive approval from the university.
“I brought that idea to our administration and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ President [Susan] Martin was great, she never wavered from it. I think there were a lot of questions as to how we were going to do it and so forth,” Verdi said. “Once everybody was on board, we had to get it through the NCAA. It wasn’t until about eight to 10 days ago that it passed and it’s taken on a life of its own.”
With so many people affected, it was likely that a large number of people would want to take part in the clinic.
“Currently we have 300 kids registered for the event and we’re capping it off there,” Verdi said.
The clinic will be held from 2-6 p.m. Feb. 10 in Newtown.
Verdi is hopeful for the event to resonate not only with the people taking part, but with the student-athletes who are making the trip.
“We’re really excited about it,” Verdi said. “It gives us the opportunity for our kids to go out and touch someone’s life; it gives them the opportunity to really see firsthand [the people affected] and I think as a coach it’s really our social obligation to grow and develop our student-athletes here at Eastern Michigan.”
Junior guard and forward Natachia Watkins will be making the trip to Newtown with her teammates. She is very eager to help out and make an impact on the lives of the children affected by the shooting.
“My initial reaction was that I was excited,” Watkins said. “I feel like it was a great opportunity for us to get out and help other people.”
Watkins’s mother runs a daycare, so she’s is used to working with children already. She is using that background and the previous experience she and the team have with doing clinics in the past, and applying it to the trip.
“I’m actually excited because I enjoy working with kids,” Watkins said. “We’ve had basketball clinics here before so we know how to work with kids, and we’ve been talking about it every day and thinking about what games to do with them. We’re excited to get their minds off of the whole tragedy.”
Assistant Athletic Director Melody Reifel-Werner will also be traveling to Newtown with the team. She was very supportive of the effort undertaken by Verdi and his team.
“When coach Verdi first approached me he said something on the order of ‘You know, Melody, that I grew up in Connecticut close to the town of Newtown,’” Reifel-Werner said. “At that moment I felt instant worry and concern that one of his friends or family members had suffered during the shooting. However, he went on to tell me of his idea and I was both excited and touched by his concern and his enthusiasm for bringing joy to the children of Newtown. I was quite astonished at his willingness to put so much time and effort into a project in the height of his season, but the more I work with coach Verdi the more I realize he is a very special coach with a big heart.”
Reifel-Werner was very happy that the event has taken on a “life of its own.”
“I am so pleased for so many reasons. I love that they are giving of themselves in such a big way,” Reifel-Werner said. “The plan for the weekend is exhausting to say the least. All of us who are going, including President [Susan] Martin, Regent [Francine] Parker and Vice President [of Communication] Walter Kraft, will have a couple of very short nights and very long days. So the coaching staff and the student-athletes are making this work during what is already a demanding time in their lives. I have always been proud of them but this makes me even more so.”
Reifel-Werner had more to say about Verdi and the compassion with which he developed the idea of putting on the clinic.
“This effort by coach Verdi is a selfless act born out of his love of children and his desire to help his student-athletes build character and community-mindedness,” Reifel-Werner said.
Verdi was very appreciative of the university and donors for taking on the financial responsibility for the event.
“I just appreciate our university taking on such a financial chore, if you will. Because it’s not cheap. At the end of the day, it’s going to cost us about $20,000 to $25,000 to do this,” Verdi said. “We’re asking for donations. I guess the biggest question is: How much is a smile worth to you?”
Donations are still being accepted. To make a donation, please visit www.emufoundation.org/index.php/public-give.html?fund=01998.
The clinic will be held from 2-6 p.m. Feb. 10 in Newtown, Conn.