Kevin Zeitler is 6 feet 4 inches tall and 315 pounds and in front of him stood a middle school student from St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay. The former UW-Madison offensive lineman asked the kid one question.
“Which number do you want, the Wisconsin number or the Bengals number?” Zeitler said.
“Um, the Bengals,” the kid said and turned around so Zeitler, the 2012 NFL first round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, can sign his name and uniform number 68, a small adjustment from years of signing autographs with his Badger number 70.
This was one of dozens of autographs he would sign at the 65th Annual St. Monica’s Sports Night on Thursday, May 3. Zeitler, former Green Bay Packer offensive lineman Mark Tauscher and Marquette University basketball star Jae Crowder were featured at the annual parish event which drew about 350 people.
“I like talking to the kids,” Zeitler said. “I’ve been given a platform and whatever I can do to help some schools and stuff is always worth it.”
The St. Monica Sports Night is one of two events organized by the St. Monica Booster Club to fund the athletic department. Over the years, the event has attracted a plethora of Wisconsin athletic stars. In 2003, the event featured Packers wide receiver Donald Driver and then-Marquette basketball head coach Tom Crean, accompanied by Dwayne Wade who earlier that day had announced he would enter the NBA draft.
“It’s our fundraiser for uniforms, coaches; last year we bought a new scoreboard,” said Ned Neitzel, a parishioner and booster club member. “This is our major fundraising event for athletics at the school.”
For Rob Mulcahy, 45-year veteran of the event and former student at St. Monica, it’s about creating memories for the students while helping the athletic department.
“I remember when Paul Hornung came here (in 1964), I remember when Bart Starr came here (in 1966),” he said. “It allows a Catholic grade school to have a wide variety of sports. We wouldn’t have any of it without this booster club.”
Booster club president Dan McNally said the event has social and financial benefits.
“Financially, it means that tuition and fees are lower for all families as the costs of the athletic program and facilities are covered by booster club fundraising,” McNally said. “Socially, it means that the St. Monica community has a unique and special tradition to rally around every year.”
Besides featuring big names from the sports community, tickets and autographed memorabilia are auctioned. This year, a Milwaukee Brewers 20-ticket suite pack with four-premium parking pass tickets, sold for $1,500 and another Brewers ticket four-pack for the Mother’s Day game versus the Chicago Cubs in the 200s section sold for $225.
The event also gives the guests an opportunity to inspire the kids to do well in their own lives.
“The biggest thing for me is to illustrate some of my experiences struggling with reading and some other things that I’ve been able to overcome,” Tauscher said. “Just perseverance, fighting through stuff when bad stuff happens. Don’t let that define you.”
Tauscher was the only Catholic of the athletic guests and belongs to St. Albert the Great and Blessed Sacrament parishes in Madison.
Zeitler, a Lutheran, said religion has had an impact on him on and off the field.
“I think it helped me a lot at Wisconsin,” he said. “I felt like, higher moral standards I guess, in some situations. Just, you know, avoiding certain things other players did, such as drugs and alcohol. It just never crossed my mind to do that.”
Zeitler added that faith helped him keep a “cooler head” on the field when going up against “trash talking” defensive players.
“I never fought or punched back,” Zeitler said.
On draft night his Catholic fiancé from St. Joseph Parish, Big Bend, Sara Braun, kept repeating Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” to calm him down.
Zeitler said after he got the news, he said a “thank you” prayer and let out a sigh of relief.
Crowder, who is hoping to be drafted in the June 28 NBA draft, said he never felt like an outsider being a non-Catholic at a Jesuit university.
“(Marquette) is a family oriented university,” Crowder said. “Each Jesuit university you see that’s highly praised. You have a good sense of a home feeling away from home.”
This is Crowder’s second appearance speaking at a charity event since the Marquette basketball season ended, and he sees the events as a way for him to make an impact.
“I feel like this is always a great way to give back and a good way to show that I want to give back to the community,” he said. “I feel like it’s the right thing to do…. If I can help one little young man tonight, if I can help them focus on their dream and succeed in it, that would mean the world to me.”
Like the young students in the crowd, Zeitler and Crowder are looking to their own futures with anxiety and excitement.
Zeitler admitted he feels “weird” about being a Bengal.
“I’ve always been a Packer (backer),” Zeitler said, but added he’s looking forward to the 2012 NFL season.
Tauscher, now retired, offered words of advice.
“Just have fun with it,” he said. “It’s a great time in your life.”
Crowder said he’s anxious to go up against the best in the NBA. As a first team Big East conference member and Big East player of the year, some draft watchers project him to be selected in the first round.
The Marquette senior came to the event late because of a class and said it’s hard to focus on what’s going on in the classroom with the NBA hanging over his head.
“The majority of the time, that’s what I’m thinking about,” Crowder said, adding he’s not nervous and has a “free mind.”
When asked for a pre-season prediction about his former team, the Packers, Tauscher said, “It’s good times ahead.”