Former football players donate new helmets

Sam Schauer, Reporter

It was a big deal when the Jackrabbit Former Players Association (JFPA) purchased and donated the white helmets to the football team last season, and Ryan McKnight, president of the JFPA, says to stay tuned for this season.

The JFPA is a nonprofit composed of many former football players that donate to the football team. Ryan McKnight is their current president, and was a former player from 2006-2010.

McKnight said that it was the spring of 2018 when the JFPA officially launched.

“We had the idea in the fall of ’17, and we got everything finalized in the spring of ’18 to get the non-profit status rolling,” McKnight said.

They originally started to get a certified tailgate area for game days. It then shifted to “bringing the brotherhood” back to games which followed with fundraising for the team.

“Last year we had 350 [former players] buy in,” McKnight said. “There are 1,600 living alum… If we can get 1,000 guys to buy in every year, the opportunities, what we could do, the power, the momentum, the impact; we can make a huge difference every year just by guys buying back in.”

The JFPA has purchased many essentials for the team ranging from food, practice cameras, gameday sweatshirts and even new gym equipment.

“It was our way of saying thank you for being awesome at football,” McKnight said.

Former head coach John Stiegelmeier appreciates the JFPA’s gestures.

“They’ve helped out in other ways,” said Stiegelmeier, who retired this January after leading the team to its first FCS Championship title. “They had a huge tailgate down in Frisco, and I think there was over 250 former players on the field on our last practice Saturday … but they were there saying we support you.”

Perhaps the most notable contribution to the football team was purchasing the white helmets.

“We asked Stig if he had a wish list, what would be on it?” McKnight said. “He gave us his wish list, and the number one thing on it was new helmets.”

They purchased the helmets in February, and kept them quiet as much as possible to not tip off the players, but Stiegelmeier was let in on the secret. In fact, the JFPA and Stiegelmeier had a little feud over the design of the helmets.

“I wanted the SD on the side,” Stiegelmeier said. “I’m a believer in that, and they battled me as they felt the highlighted rabbit would be better, and I gave in.”

The plan was to show them off after the Iowa game, and the players were introduced to the helmets using a cooler to disguise the gesture. 

“It was really cool on how they presented it,” Stiegelmeier said. “He brought out a cooler like he was going to give them some Powerades at the end of practice, and pulled out the helmet.”

And with everything the football team has done and accomplished, they feel the JFPA is a way to continue the support for the team after leaving.

“Our young guys are saying ‘that’s going to be me in two to three years,” Stiegelmeier said.

McKnight also says the opportunity for former players to help and feel like they are a part of the team again is important.

“Whatever happened two to three decades ago, maybe you didn’t play, maybe you blew out your knee, maybe this happened, but you were here,” McKnight said. “You were a part of this, you helped build this brick by brick by brick. The foundation of what we are today … it was built decades before.”

With the success of what the JFPA has been able to do, other former players from different schools across the country have contacted them to ask how they’ve been able to do it. 

“Northern Michigan University to Black Hills State to wherever saw what an alumni group can do, and they’ve been reaching out wanting to buy helmets for their guys asking ‘how’d you do it?” McKnight said.

One of those alumni groups that reached out to the JFPA were former players from the University of Sioux Falls.

“When I started talking about this concept for USF, a few friends with ties to Ryan McKnight helped me contact him,” Jason Appel, former USF player from 2001-2004, said.

Appel said he liked what McKnight had built with former players coming back and supporting the team, and wanted to replicate it.  He took over a group that had been formed before and changed it to more what the JFPA is. 

Appel adds that they officially formed in March, and are off to a good start with many former USF players buying in.

For the next big project, the JFPA are raising money for locker room renovations, but he also says to stay tuned for this coming football season for another surprise.

“I think you guys will be in for a treat this fall with hopefully another little splash,” McKnight said.