Familiar faces pay it forward to next generation of student-athletes
Published 6:45 am Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Ole Miss Athletics Foundation strategies result in banner year of support from former players
By Bill Dabney
The Ole Miss Athletics Foundation reports a significant increase in recent financial support received from former University of Mississippi student-athletes.
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Most contributions from the former Rebel players are directed to the Vaught Society, an umbrella organization that includes major gifts to Ole Miss athletics and gifts in kind.
Also included are gifts associated with eMpower, the SEC’s first women’s athletics major giving program. Already, eMpower has 25 commitments totaling $800,000, half of which are from new donors.
“Former student-athlete engagement is a top priority for us,” said Denson Hollis, the foundation’s CEO. “In particular, I’m very excited about the momentum we’ve built with many young, former student-athletes of all sports.
“It’s encouraging to see that the new strategies OMAF has introduced, such as keeping the recent Rebels engaged with Ole Miss athletics and events, are starting to show real results.”
Recent donors said they made gifts for a variety of reasons:
- The call to contribute to the CHAMPIONS. NOW. campaign for facilities improvement
- Being encouraged to give by new OMAF fundraisers, several of whom are former Rebel athletes
- A sense of loyalty paired with a desire to give back to the alma mater that helped them achieve their goals
“I think you have a lot of athletes who finally are realizing that Ole Miss gave them a great opportunity to be successful on and off the field, and instead of them asking what else Ole Miss can do for them, they are at a point where they want to give back to the school that gave them so much,” said Ben Still, a former Rebel football player who works in the wealth management industry for Bluff City Advisory Group in Memphis. “I enjoy the idea of helping that trend continue. It also helps that the foundation and athletics department have a great network of former players working for them who can connect with other players and make them want to give back.”
OMAF recently hired former Rebel football player Javon Patterson and former Rebel baseball national champion Ben Van Cleve, both young alumni who have been tasked with inviting their contemporaries to support Ole Miss. The staff also includes three other former student-athletes: Blair Griffith, who played football for Concordia-St. Paul, is associate director of development; Matt McLaughlin, who played baseball for Jacksonville State, is chief development officer; and Vy Quach, who played tennis for Maryville College, is assistant director of development for the annual fund.
“The younger former student-athletes weren’t feeling engaged, and we are working hard to build a sense of community with them and help them understand that their gifts in any amount can strengthen our programs,” Patterson said. “This new wave of former player engagement is providing a model to current student-athletes, showing them what their post Ole Miss life can look like.”
Former Rebel football player Mitchell Skrmetta, chief financial officer for Cunningham DeLaney Construction, a large civil contractor in Baldwin County, Ala., said the relationship Patterson built with him was the catalyst for his gift. “He and I hit it off immediately,” Skrmetta said. “It’s much easier to relate to a person when you share things in common. Javon accomplishes that with me and every other former Rebel athlete. … This is our way to continue giving what we have to the program to help make it successful. We want to be a part of that journey.”
The CHAMPIONS. NOW. campaign focused on improving facilities for student-athletes appealed to former Rebel golfer Haymes Snedeker, of Fairhope, Ala. “I was presented with an opportunity to help enhance the golf teams’ facilities,” said Snedeker, co-owner of Hix Snedeker Cos., a commercial real estate development firm. “I wanted to give back to a program and the university that had given so much to me.
“The men’s and women’s golf teams have been both national and SEC champions. I want to do my part to ensure the facilities remain among the best, if not the best, in the Southeastern Conference.”
Former Rebel women’s basketball player Armintie Herrington, of Grenada, shared similar sentiments about her gift. “I hope my gift helps the facilities stay top in the country and the student-athletes continue to be able to train, succeed and, in turn, want to give back because of what was invested in them through donors, families and the athletics department,” said Herrington, a motivational speaker and community volunteer who played for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and was an assistant coach for Ole Miss women’s basketball.
“We see other universities growing and expanding in athletics and we don’t want to be left behind in anything. As much as I can, I want the university to be able to continue to help the student-athletes in every way possible be as successful as any other student-athletes in the country. If I can be a blessing, I want to help the university help the students have unlimited success.”
EMpower appealed to former Rebel long-jumper, Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion Brittney Reese. “When I think of Ole Miss, I have nothing but good memories,” said Reese, owner of Legacy Empires LLC in Gulfport. “I look back and I think of all the opportunities that they have given me as a female student-athlete and for that reason I chose to give to eMpower.”
It’s their collegiate experience that inspired former Rebel football players Benito Jones, Chris Spencer and Sheldon Morris to give back. “My coaches, teammates, athletics staff and Ole Miss family made my four years in Oxford my home away from home,” said Jones, a defensive tackle with the Detroit Lions. “I know that I would not be the person I am today without my experiences at Ole Miss.
“The older I get, the more I realize the impact my Ole Miss family has had on me. I feel as if other players have this same mindset. Although many of us have taken several different paths to get to where we are now, we can all appreciate the important life lessons we learned at Ole Miss.”
Spencer, who played center at Ole Miss and most recently for the Tennessee Titans, agreed: “Former student athletes, including those like me from Ole Miss, have the unique privilege and responsibility to give back, knowing that our alma mater provided us with the skills and character to make a difference.” A Nashville resident, Spencer is founder and CEO of Blue Chip Analytics.
After college, Oxford native Morris served 22 years in the U.S. Army before retiring as a colonel. He is vice president for programs at Delta Health Alliance. “You can go pro in things other than athletics and also have an opportunity to support the university that has supported you and hopefully that you love,” Morris said. “Everybody will have different experiences. Mine were very, very positive.
“I had the fraternity life; I had all the good things I could while trying to balance ROTC, academics and football at the same time.”
He also had exceptional mentors – his father, Neal Graham; UM Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat; and his best friend, fraternity brother and teammate, Al Rice – motivated him toward increasingly greater success, encouraging him to reach his potential.
“How we engage in someone’s career is important,” Morris said. “Maybe there’s value in giving back in the form of guest speakers who come in and speak to the team or by inspiring people to reach their potential the way you’ve been inspired.”
The desire to see Ole Miss continue to have the needed resources to win championships fueled former Rebel baseball player Joel Lyons‘ gift. “Not only was I a student-athlete at Ole Miss, I’m also an avid fan and want to see Ole Miss athletics do well,” said Lyons, owner of a construction and development company in Nashville. “I hope my contributions, along with many others, allow us to be competitive with recruiting.”
Former Rebel basketball player Hunter Carpenter, of Dallas, believes the future is bright for Ole Miss athletics, thanks in part to the strategies OMAF has implemented to engage former student-athletes.
“For me, athletics has never been in a better position leadership-wise across the board,” said Carpenter, a partner in a private equity firm based in Dallas and New York. “From our chancellor’s support, our athletics director and the quality of our coaches, we are as best positioned as Ole Miss has ever been to reach our full potential both within the conference and on the national stage. …
“I have always felt Ole Miss had the potential to compete on the national stage year in and year out given its unique characteristics – but in its own way, not like the blue bloods. But resources have always been a challenge. Now, as we marshal the resources, I wanted to be a part of it.”
The foundation also has recently received gifts from several other former student-athletes: David Blackburn (tennis), Wesley Bryan (football), Keith Carter (basketball), Luke Chamblee (football), Tommy Clement (golf), Robert Conyers (football), Luke Davis (football), Terence Davis II (basketball), Jacob Feeley (football), Jonathan Hodges (track), Walker Jones (football), Bryan Kane (golf), AJ Kiamie (football), Claire Kiamie (tennis), Dawson Knox (football), longtime supporter Lance Lynn (baseball), Jerrell Powe (football), Griffin Tanner (track), Ray Waddell (basketball) and others.