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TUFF love: Michigan football player's nonprofit provides uniforms to kids in need

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

During his freshman season at Michigan, Adam Shibley, a former walk-on who is now a scholarship linebacker, was looking for an on-campus organization with which he could get involved. With his academic and football schedules, time was limited.

It was then he saw former teammate Chase Winovich fund-raising for the ChadTough Foundation, and Shibley found his motivation.

“That kind of sparked the thought, like, ‘Hey, I could really help people out, work on this in my own time and really try to affect other people's lives.' So I combined my passions of uniform design and youth sports and really just took it from there.

Adam Shibley, right, and The Uniform Funding Foundation deliver uniforms to the Pal 6 Red Dogs of the Cleveland Muny Football League.

“But there's one specific experience that stuck out to me. I was driving home from my girlfriend's one day in Cleveland, and on the corner of Lee and Miles, a bunch of youth football players were coming up to every car that stopped at the red light trying to ask for $5, $1, whatever people were able to offer.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I never had to do this for anything. I always had the best equipment, but there are kids who are struggling to get just the amount of money to pay their fees to play the game.’ That really stands out to me and that was one of the main reasons that drove me to operate in the space that we are working in now.”

Shibley met with Michigan compliance to make sure he could pull this off, got the go ahead and launched The Uniform Funding Foundation (TUFF) non-profit in November 2018. Not long after, he received a grant from OptiMize, which funds student-created projects at Michigan.

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Shibley, a Cleveland native, formed a TUFF board that includes his Michigan teammates -- COO Jake McCurry, a receiver also from the Cleveland area; CFO Jess Speight, a defensive lineman; defensive end Kwity Paye is the multicultural and player relations director; offensive lineman Joel Honigford is development director; and Jared Davis, a defensive back, is community relations director.

The next summer, after initially fundraising $5,000, TUFF made its first donation of uniforms to the Garden Valley Falcons in Cleveland. This summer, the foundation was able to supply four youth teams in Cleveland and will also present uniforms and equipment to four teams in the Detroit PAL league on Thursday.

Most youth teams have 30 to 40 members, and Shibley said it costs about $110 per player, who will receive uniforms, towels, socks and mouthpieces. TUFF works with TopCat Sales, owned by former Michigan quarterback John Wangler, who supplies the adidas apparel. Adidas, Wangler said, is active in helping under-served communities and youth sports are a point of emphasis, so working with a group like TUFF was an easy decision.

Speight, an economics major, spearheads fundraising, with everyone contributing to the efforts, and TUFF has now raised $60,000 with recent donations from former Michigan linebackers Jake Ryan and Ben Gedeon, and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, whose brother, Dylan, is a Michigan quarterback. McCurry, who is the Ross School of Business, also works on the business side, as well.

TUFF will launch a GoFundMe this month and donations can be made on the website, gettuff.org, which is also where youth teams can be nominated to receive uniforms. The foundation is accessible on Instagram (@GETTUFF_) and Twitter (@GetTuff__).

Already, plans are in place to expand to assist youth boys and girls basketball teams. That will cost about $2,000 per team. They wanted to include girls sports after discussing TUFF with board member Maria Taylor, the former Georgia volleyball and basketball standout now working for ESPN. At some point, TUFF would also like to expand and include teams across the country.

Members of the Pal 6 Red Dogs of Cleveland pose for photos after receiving their uniforms from TUFF.

The thrill for all of the TUFF members is the moment the youth players receive their new gear. Earlier this month, a dozen Michigan players made the trip to Cleveland for the presentation.

“By the time we brought up the jerseys, they were dancing around, prancing around, showing off, you know, flexing their arms, just really excited, really excited to have these like brand new uniforms," Speight said. "So it's pretty special."

McCurry said he, Speight and Shibley never wanted for anything when it came to playing sports. They needed new cleats, they got new cleats. At Michigan, McCurry, for instance, gets new receiver gloves every practice and every game.

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“So you think about how much we get and we take for granted versus these kids that need to scrape and scrape for a pair of gloves and cleats, it is just very impactful,” McCurry said. “So we really hope to convey that message and how impactful that is, and what we're trying to do with this GoFundMe is raise a large amount of funds and help a lot of communities and teams.”

The group has big plans, including developing camps in the cities to work with the young athletes, and Shibley said they’re moving into adding mentoring to their cause.

“Where we connect Division I athletes with both high school and youth athletes that want someone to learn from and want advice as they go about their recruiting process,” said Shibley, recently appointed to the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate, Anti-Racism Coalition. “We've been really excited to add that to our mission. We’ve got a lot of big things going on right now, and we're just really happy that it's really starting to take off.”

When on-campus activities were suspended at Michigan in mid-March just as spring football was about to begin, Shibley said he was able to throw his extra time at building TUFF.

“We were able to pour everything into it,” he said. “I remember talking to all my buddies who were home during quarantine and they were like, 'I'm so bored,’ and I just remember thinking, ‘I'm not bored at all.’ I would be able to sit on my laptop and call people and every single day something new with the foundation was happening. It just really took off in that time, and I was able to pour my time along with Jake and Jess and everyone, and we just had a lot of fun with it. It's been a blessing in disguise, especially for this project.”

That TUFF has come this far in a short time has been a pleasant surprise for Shibley, who intends to keep the organization going long after he’s graduated from Michigan.

“I did not expect this to be as big as it's become and as big as it's going to be,” he said. “I was thinking more narrow-minded, but now, I'm excited to go all over. There's just so much possibility and working with NFL or NBA players who live in different cities. We could just ship them the uniforms and they can facilitate their own donation in front of a team that they played on when they were a youth athlete. So I think there's unbelievable room for this to grow, and definitely super excited to make it happen.”