Eight days before kickoff of the Kansas football program’s second bowl game in 12 months, quarterback Jason Bean, running back Devin Neal and linebacker Rich Miller were at The Ballard Center in North Lawrence boxing up toys and organizing coats to help make the holidays a little brighter for area families.
In all, more than 1,000 coats were collected as part of the winter wear and toy drive, prompting Ballard Center CEO Kyle Roggenkamp to say that this likely will be the first year in a while that the organization does not run out of coats this winter.
The idea to do a little extra to help out belonged to Miller, who picked it up from a former Buffalo teammate who does something similar in that community.
For the past few weeks, Miller did his part to inspire people to give to the cause, grabbing Neal, a Lawrence native, and Bean, a fan favorite, to help him along the way.
“I knew I had to put their names on it too, so we could collect more,” Miller joked. “So, I’m using y’all.”
The only thing Miller and his teammates used during this endeavor was their hearts. And on Monday afternoon they got to see what their time and names produced.
After taking it all in and meeting a few fans, the KU trio rolled up their sleeves and got to work, boxing up the toys for delivery and arranging the coats by size so kids can pick out their favorite when they come into the center.
Neal was the first to arrive on Monday — Miller and Bean stopped by the KU football facility to pick up the last of the donations — and the KU running back and Lawrence High graduate's face said it all when he walked into the room filled with coats and toys.
“I was not ready for all this,” he said. “This is amazing. Stuff like this is bigger than football. Way bigger. This is awesome. I was expecting a big turnout, but not quite this large. I was just shocked."
Causes that support Lawrence kids have always meant a lot to Neal, but this particular outreach effort was made even more special by the fact that it meant just as much to his teammates.
"I've always been a guy who wants to give back to the community, just like Rich and Jason," Neal said. "They've only been here for three or so years, but this is another home for them and they want to give back, too."
Although he joked about using them for their notoriety, Miller said he wanted to get his teammates involved in the project because of their character and the fact that they represent what the entire KU program is all about.
"I could've picked many more people," Miller said. "I wish I could've."
Miller said he wasn't interested in taking too much credit for the amount of coats and toys they collected, noting, "All I did was put the idea out there and the people of Lawrence and around us came through."
"This is the type of stuff that gives me life," Miller added. "I (didn't know) if it was gonna be that big, but I just wanted to do anything I could. I didn't expect it to be this much, and I ain't felt that much happiness in a minute. Not a tackle or a sack can compare to this."
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