When honorees as distinguished as Neil Armstrong and Drew Brees have spoken at your organization's annual dinner, the ability to have even bigger names becomes all the more difficult.
But as the Joe Tiller Chapter of the National Football Foundation begins its second decade, it feels it has its share of distinguished guests for the Honors Dinner June 10 in the Union Ballroom. There, Ryan Grigson, a former Boilermaker and the NFL Executive-of-the-Year as the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, and David Boudia, an Olympic gold-winning diver, will be featured, as will others.
And much like the Colts have done in only a year under Grigson, the local NFF is looking for a bit of resurgence. Membership numbers have dropped a little in recent years, down from a high of 340 when the Tiller Chapter was the second largest in the country. Now in the 200s, membership still ranks in the top-five.
"It was unprecedented," chapter president Bart Burrell said of the organization's early growth. "I would certainly give credit to Drew Brees and his efforts, but I would not dismiss Joe Tiller. Joe really had created one of the largest chapters at Wyoming, of all places, and his commitment really made it go, as much as anything.
"He was able to get the right local people behind it and Drew was really the icing on the cake then. To be able to have him come in and be the star of the show, so to speak, was great."
The organization serves dual purposes. Its primary may be helping to get more former Boilermakers, noticeably under-represented in the past, elected into the College Football Hall of Fame. And that's gone exceedingly well, with three - Mark Herrmann, Mike Phipps and Otis Armstrong - in over the last six years, ending a 16-year drought.
"That was one of the points of frustration, as the SID and PR person for athletics for so many years, why we weren't better represented?" said Jim Vruggink, the Executive Director of the Tiller Chapter and a long-time representative of Purdue. "Not only in the College Football Hall of Fame, but in the Indiana Football Hall of Fame, and we're vastly under-represented in that organization. So those things have kind of been solved."
Also, a key function of the organization and one of the primary reasons for the dinner, is the awarding of scholarships to high school football standouts. This year, 29 have been nominated from across northern Indiana, including seven finalists for the Scholar Athlete-of-the-Year Award - with a total of nearly $150,000 donated since 2004.
"We've seen very generous community support that has given us money through sponsorships and advertising in the program," Vruggink said. "It has allowed us to make a difference with youth and high school football in our area."
But Vruggink would like to see the chapter expand even more. It's already working to that end, stretching farther into northwest Indiana, taking student-athlete nominations from there as well as near the Fort Wayne area also.
But community and business support from those places would be an added bonus. Donations and sponsorships - the organization is a 501c3, meaning it is tax deductible - in large part goes toward the scholarship allowance. While it'd be nice to give even more, the support thus far has been impressive.
"It's been huge," Burrell said. "At first it was hard to even get people to nominate their kids to come - it was just another thing on their plate that they didn't understand or get - but I think they get it now. We have wide-spread support and many high schools are involved in nominating kids."
Membership dues to the Tiller Chapter are $40 per year or $99 for three years. And ticket prices to the Honors Dinner "Celebrating Our Legends IX" are $400 (for a table of eight) for general public; $320 for NFF chapter members and honorees' families; and $280 for students. Single tickets are $55 for public, $45 for members and $35 for students. VIP Dessert Reception tickets are $100 each for a chance to meet the honorees.
The Dinner has a full slate of honorees. Grigson, who played at Purdue from 1990-1994, will receive the Drew Brees Mental Toughness Award. Boudia, a gold medalist in the 2012 Olympic Games, will be awarded the chapter's Gold Medallion. MerrieBeth Cox, Purdue's Golden Girl and Miss Indiana; Noble Kizer, a longtime Lafayette resident and son of former Purdue coach and AD Noble E. Kizer; and Mark Ebelhar, the former head of West Lafayette Little Gridiron, will also be honored.
So will 6-year-old Cooper Fulmer of Winamac and 18-year-old Patrick Mackey of Lafayette, after their inspirational battles with leukemia. They receive this year's Courage Award.
"That could be a real tear-jerker," Vruggink said. "Those two schools just bonded together (through those personal battles)."
Also, Darrell Hazell, Tiller and athletic director Morgan Burke will be in attendance, and Brees and Purdue president Mitch Daniels will provide video presentations.
Vruggink thinks it'll be another good show, the latest in the event that has featured astronauts to Super Bowl-winning QBs.
"Part of it is putting on good events that people enjoy attending and that helps to be the face of the organization," Vruggink said. "Keeping high-profile individuals involved in that moving forward is going to be key (to our growth)."
For more information, contact Jim Vruggink at email@example.com or call him at 765-427-3303.
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