ITHACA — It takes a pretty tough guy to endure the grueling regimen of both Ivy League academics and NCAA Division I lacrosse. In other words, not the kind of person you’d expect to find reading books to little children.
Yet here were Cornell University teammates Justin Redd, Ian Rosenberger, Mitch Belisle, Dan Leary and Matt Robbins in the library of Immaculate Conception School, visiting with 15 attentive fourth-graders as they collectively solved cases from the Encyclopedia Brown series.
“That was the end of that book. Do you guys want to hear one more, do you think?” Redd asked.
“Yeahhhh,” the students replied in a long chorus.
Upon completion of the second book, Rosenberger said cheerily, “Good detective work, guys!”
To the players’ left, a photo was prominently displayed of a former Big Red lacrosse player, George Boiardi, whose initiative led to his teammates’ presence on this early spring Thursday morning.
“He definitely loved kids. He was going to teach in South Dakota on a Indian reservation,” said teammate and close friend Rosenberger, adding that Mr. Boiardi favored such a career over big-money jobs.
Mr. Boiardi, a co-captain for the Big Red in 2004, was a driving force behind establishment of the Big Red Readers Program at Immaculate Conception.
“Unfortunately, he only got to come once and reap the benefits,” Rosenberger remarked.
His physical absence is the one tragic element in an otherwise feel-good story.
On March 17, 2004, not long after the reading program was launched, Mr. Boiardi was struck in the chest by a ball while playing against Binghamton University. The senior defender collapsed and, hours later, was pronounced dead at the age of 23.
“It was the worst day of my life. I had always expected to have George in my wedding and be a godparent to one of my kids. When you begin to realize that’s not going to happen, that’s very difficult,” said Rosenberger, a childhood pal of Boiardi’s who remained close friends with him at Cornell.
Inspired by Mr. Boiardi, the Big Red posted a 9-5 record in 2004 and went 11-3 this past season, winning nine straight games and reaching the NCAA tournament quarterfinals for the second straight time.
The team has also carried on Mr. Boiardi’s memory at Immaculate Conception. “We’re making sure his wishes are still kept in our minds. It’s very important to us,” said Redd, a senior midfielder.
A corner of the school library has been converted into a memorial for Mr. Boiardi, with many books having been contributed or purchased through cash donations. Mr. Boiardi’s parents, Mario and Deborah, have been among the major supporters of this effort.
The Big Red Readers Program was begun in early 2004 after Mr. Boiardi discussed the idea with Ladeen Case, a prekindergarten teacher at Immaculate Conception, whose husband, Jim, is the Cornell lacrosse team’s athletic trainer. Volunteer readers have grown to include the football, track and field-hockey programs, thanks to several personal connections between Immaculate Conception staff and Cornell. Many athletes appear weekly, coming down the hill from campus to share their softer sides with the children. Athletes do their book-reading in the library as well as in classrooms; some even put in additional time with gym classes.
“We’ve had guys hang out until lunchtime, then go out on the playground with their lacrosse sticks,” said Deacon Dan Hurley, principal. “The kids look up to them tremendously. It’s been wonderful, absolutely wonderful. They are outstanding role models.”
Deacon Hurley added that he’s impressed with the athletes’ commitment, knowing how demanding their schedules can be.
“It’s a pressure cooker up there,” he said.
However, the players say the experience is a welcome break. Rosenberger, a senior midfielder, said reading to the students is a nice change from “our little box of a world.”
“If it wasn’t enjoyable, it would be a lot harder,” Redd said.
“The kids, they kind of get to know you — they’ll see you and say ‘hey, what’s going on,'” added Leary, a senior forward.
“The teachers say how much the kids get out of it, but I don’t know if they realize how much we get out of it,” Rosenberger commented. “How great these kids are — it really puts a smile on your face.”
These positive connections can all be traced back to Mr. Boiardi, who was tough as nails on the field but, as Rosenberger said, “had the unique ability to flip that switch. He really enjoyed this stuff.”
Rosenberger said that Mr. Boiardi, a Catholic from Washington, D.C., possessed integrity and maturity beyond his years: “He was an angel who came down and showed us how to do things. He had an uncanny ability to always do the right thing.” Despite Mr. Boiardi’s untimely death, Rosenberger considers himself blessed to have been friends with such a person.
“To be able to have known somebody like that, that’s a gift from God,” he stated. “And I don’t think most people have a chance to know somebody like that.”