From University of Chicago Athletics
New Year's Day is a special date on the college football calendar. It serves as an annual celebration of the season that was, with prestigious bowl games crowning the winning teams with glory.
This year, Vincent Beltrano didn't need to turn on a TV to watch the spectacle. He saw it all there in person, standing between the lines on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf amongst 72,000 enthusiastic spectators. It's an experience he'll never forget.
Back in mid-September, Beltrano was one of 22 college football players named to the 2015 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. The award, bestowed by Allstate Insurance Company and the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), recognizes student-athletes who have made a positive impact on their communities through service and volunteerism. Beltrano was also invited to attend the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, where the Good Works Team would be recognized at halftime.
The UChicago senior cornerback recently wrapped up his collegiate career with numerous accolades, including First Team All-America from D3football.com and First Team Academic All-America from the College Sports Information Directors of America (COSIDA). He ranks as the school's all-time career leader in interceptions (15), passes defended (40) and punt return yards (528). With graduation approaching, Beltrano already has a job lined up in Chicago at JP Morgan Chase & Co. with the Asset Management division.
Each member of the Good Works Team was allowed to bring a guest, so Beltrano chose his head coach Chris Wilkerson. The duo journeyed down to New Orleans, where Allstate packed a litany of events into two days on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. "There was hardly any down time, as the majority of the itinerary kept us busy throughout the day," Beltrano said. "However, when there was free time, Coach Wilkerson and I were able to explore what downtown New Orleans has to offer – which is plenty."
The festivities surrounding the bowl game allowed Beltrano to interact with many esteemed football players, members of the Sugar Bowl committee and corporate executives from Allstate. Several big names included Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and former coach Gary Darnell.
New Year's Eve kicked off with a community youth football clinic hosted at Isidore Newman School, whose notable alumni include Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. Children from various YMCA of Greater New Orleans locations were taught football basics by all the members of the Good Works Team. Allstate also contributed a $10,000 donation to the YMCAs. Beltrano singled out the community service as the highlight of his trip.
"Each event was special in its own right. The holistic experience was amazing," Beltrano said. "If I had to choose one event in particular though, I would have to say the children's camp/donation was the most memorable, because ultimately what this game – and life in general – is about is giving back. Football thrives because of the youth, and it is truly remarkable to see what my participation and volunteering meant to those children."
Later in the day, the members of the Good Works Team rode on a float in the Sugar Bowl New Year's Eve parade and were special guests for the evening gala at The Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel. Additionally, on the Wednesday night that they arrived in town, the group received VIP access to a fan fest concert headlined by musical artist Usher.
Game day rolled around on Friday night, and the two fan bases brought the atmosphere. University of Mississippi and Oklahoma State University faced off in front of a capacity crowd at the Superdome. Ole Miss ended up winning the game 48-20. At halftime, Beltrano and the Good Works Team were presented with their accolades down on the field.
"The atmosphere of the Sugar Bowl was electric, as you had two storied programs and proud fan bases in Ole Miss and Oklahoma State battling on a large college football stage in an attempt to represent their respective conferences as best as possible," Beltrano said. "I was able to attend the Iron Bowl in 2014, and the environments were very comparable. Football in the south is a lifestyle, and neither Ole Miss nor Oklahoma State were exceptions to this."
Wilkerson greatly appreciated Beltrano's invite to attend the Sugar Bowl celebration. The veteran head coach stated that the experience was one of the most special things he has been a part of in 21 years of coaching college football.
"UChicago is a special place and we talk about comprehensive excellence often," Wilkerson said. "We aim to enrich the life of the whole person. We are invested in competitive excellence as we challenge our student-athletes to develop into their best selves as athletes, teammates, students and ultimately, citizens in the world. As part of that experience, we emphasize service to others. Vinnie will leave UChicago as one of the most decorated football players in the history of the program. UChicago student-athletes are involved in a multitude of service projects and service organizations throughout the academic year. Vinnie has gone above and beyond and epitomizes everything UChicago stands for."
In terms of Wilkerson's most memorable part of the trip, he agreed with Beltrano that the community service with the football camp stood out. "Everything was so amazing. The people at Allstate, the AFCA, Sugar Bowl and city of New Orleans ran a first-class event," said Wilkerson. "Just being there and seeing the players bond and build relationships was truly special. I would say the highlight was watching the student-athletes work with the kids on the field. Football is a special game because of the kids that play it, and it was great to watch the players giving back to the community and serving others."