The Gift Of Giving

Nov. 19, 2010

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

The idea of giving back to those less fortunate is one every Georgia Tech student-athlete and coach takes very seriously. The late Michael Isenhour was no exception. Only he took the idea a step further.

In November and December of 2001, despite battling Leukemia, which would take his life that summer, Isenhour came up with the idea of a toy drive to benefit the children of the victims of September 11th. Much of his planning and organizing came from his hospital bed.

This weekend, the Georgia Tech family continues his work, when it holds the 10th Annual Michael Isenhour Toy Drive. The beneficiaries of this year’s drive are the Boys & Girls Clubs of Atlanta, Ronald McDonald House and Atlanta Children’s Shelter.

Fans attending today’s football game against Duke (kickoff is at 1:30 p.m.) or Sunday’s women’s basketball game against Connecticut (a 2:00 p.m. tip-off) are asked to bring a new, unwrapped toy or make a monetary donation. Student-athletes will be posted at gates around Bobby Dodd Stadium and Alexander Memorial Coliseum to collect the gifts.

“It’s been a priority of the student-athletes to carry on what he founded many years ago, year after year in his name,” said Leah Thomas, Director of Total Person Support Services. “Just to honor this kid, who 11 years ago founded the idea and was so generous even though he was fighting for his own life.”

Over the years, the drive, which originally had been held only on the final home football game of the season, has been expanded to include the men’s and women’s basketball teams. This year it will be held three times, with the final leg scheduled for before to the men’s basketball game Dec. 7th against Georgia.

The continuation and expansion of the drive would have made Isenhour proud.

“It just shows you what kind of person he was and what kind of impact he had on the world,” said Darryl LaBarrie, a current men’s basketball assistant coach, who also was Isenhour’s teammate and roommate. “It just shows that obviously it was a great idea and how strong people felt about him.”

Isenhour was a Lawrenceville, Ga., native, and a distant relative of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played two seasons with the Yellow Jackets after transferring from the Air Force Academy. He was the team’s representative on the Student-Athlete Advisory Board before graduating in December, 2001, with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.

Whether it was representing the Yellow Jackets on the floor, the student-athletes on the Advisory Board or, as it would turn out, kids he would never know, Isenhour was determined make a positive difference and refused to let anything stand in his way of accomplishing something he believed in.

“He was an opinionated leader. He helped lift that team to accomplish some things that a lot of people didn’t think we could accomplish,” recalled head men’s basketball coach Paul Hewitt, whose first year at Tech was Isenhour’s senior season. “He played with a level of toughness, certainly an unselfishness that caught on with everybody in that group.

“I’ll always have a smile on my face when I think of Michael,” Hewitt continued. “One of my memories of him was him walking into my office and he had an opinion on this, he had an opinion on that. You could talk to him about anything, basketball, politics, whatever. He was a huge part of that team, the personality of that team that allowed it to go out and beat people like UCLA in California, Kentucky at Philips Arena, beat Virginia at Virginia, things like that.”

“He was very intelligent and not afraid to speak his mind,” added LaBarrie. “Whether you liked it or you didn’t like it, he was going to tell you what his opinion was and he had reasons to back up what his opinion was. He was a straight shooter and just a great guy.”

LaBarrie recalled a daily — and rather one-sided debate — the two used to have.

“He always blasted his music in the morning. He used to wake me up every morning. We used to argue about it every morning,” he recalled, with a laugh. “At first he didn’t do it on purpose. Then after he knew it made me mad he started to do it on purpose. That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

LaBarrie also remembered Isenhour, the fearless banger in the paint, even going against the likes of future NBA player Alvin Jones in practice, and his solid screens — the utmost selfless act on a basketball court.

The example he set is why he is still a big part of what the men’s basketball program is about. They commemorate Isenhour’s legacy every year with the awarding of the Michael Isenhour Spirit Award to a deserving player.

“He was a very determined young man but he also understood that whatever he had he wanted to share with other people,” said Hewitt. “There is a plaque in our locker room, it was the letter that was read at his senior day. He wasn’t able to attend but he had somebody read it. It’s still in our locker room. He had a spirit, a determination about him that allowed him to be successful in anything he was a part of, but he also felt like it was important to share that with other people.”

The drive is one of those things. It usually results in the collection of 1,500 to 2,000 toys. Financial donations are also accepte.The goal is to top that this year. Reaching or surpassing that would make Isenhour happy.

“I’m just grateful to everybody who works to keep this toy drive going,” said Hewitt. “This is something that Michael started and was important to him. The fact that we’re still doing it 10 years after he passed away, it’s a great tribute to him and it says something very positive about the Georgia Tech student body and all the people associated with Georgia Tech.”

“I always say that when you do finally leave this world, whether it’s early or whether it’s late, if you’re remembered, if people still know your name or anything you’ve started or continued on then you’ve done your job in this world,” said LaBarrie. “Hopefully it continues on forever.”

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