Until Ian Suttles opened his first letter from his elementary school pen pal, the Valparaiso junior had no idea what impact he had on children as a member of the high school football team.
"When she wrote back, it brought a big smile to my face," Suttles said. "To see I was like a hero to her, to also know I make a difference in her life, I had tears in my eyes."
After last season, Vikings coach Dave Coyle and character coach Heidi Bernardi collaborated on what the team could do to extend their reach beyond the field, and came up with the pen pal idea.
"One of the things we preach to kids is to make a positive impact in the community," Bernardi said. "You're no longer simply representing yourself. You're representing your team, your program, your school, your community. Whether they're a starter or a reserve, they're looked up to. It's a great message, that when you're part of something special, everybody, no matter who they are, is special."
All 88 Vikings were paired with an elementary school student, in this case, a third- or fourth-grader from Cooks Corners or Memorial.
"It was fairly simple to us," Coyle said. "We live in an awesome community that does so much. It's a great way to give back, though I don't know how much we're giving back, because our kids are more excited than we thought they'd be. They look forward to it. It's great reinforcement. Sometimes these kids forget how much what they do means to others. Whether some of them know it or not, it's a big deal."
Suttles and his senior brother, Derrick, both remember when they were that age, looking up to the likes of Jeff Samardzija or Jason Renn, who's now a Valpo assistant coach.
"I went to Meet the Vikes Night, and it was a wonderful experience," Derrick said. "Just having these giants touch your hand, it was truly an honor. Now being older, it brings out your true character. To know they look up to you, it warms your heart."
Bernardi holds character coaching sessions with the sophomores, juniors and seniors on Thursdays. The pen pal program began about a month ago.
"The coolest thing is to see their reaction to it, the excitement of writing the letters and being positive role models," she said.
At the elementary schools, students are proudly displaying their letters, carrying them around all day, reading them over and over. Both sides have exchanged photos and treats, with the youngsters also doing drawings.
"One of my kids has David (Hittinger), and when he told the class that he had the quarterback, the others said, 'Oh, he is famous,'" Memorial third-grade teacher Angie Coyle said. "The kids worked on basic skills, handwriting and using complete sentences with interesting words. They took their time and did their very best. The kids are super proud of their pen pals. I had one of my students see me at the game at Crown Point. He told me he and his dad came to see his pen pal play, No. 20."
Some players invited their pals to Thursday's pep rally and tonight's game. The formal meetings will be at the elementary schools Wednesday, when the kids and players will share time reading. The kids will also receive an autographed Valpo Pen Pal T-shirt.
"It's been really fun," said Memorial third-grader Lilly Horning, who's a big football fan. "They ask a lot of fun questions. I like both (reading and writing the letters). The time we've put into it has been really fun."
The students will be introduced at halftime of next Friday's game when a presentation, including clips from the get-together, will be aired on the scoreboard Jumbotron.
"We're so excited it's taken off. It's been a tremendous experience," Bernardi said. "We hope we can make it bigger down the road."