Former OU football coach Barry Switzer knows a lot about recruiting.
Three national championships with the Sooners, including those back-to-back trophies, are evidence of that. The athletes that played under him — greats like Billy Simms and J.C. Watts — know that OU commitment goes beyond the field, too.
Perhaps coach puts it best.
“When you recruit a player, you recruit them for life,” Switzer said.
So they all gathered at Jimmie Austin Golf Course on Tuesday to laugh, reminisce, and, most importantly, lend a helping hand. Sooners Helping Sooners, Inc., an advocacy organization for former OU student athletes, held a benefit luncheon to promote its cause and raise money for the people it is trying to help.
“We are all dysfunctional,” Watts, a former congressman who was the keynote speaker at the luncheon, said. “It’s just a matter of degree. It’s not a tragedy to be dysfunctional. The tragedy is when we allow dysfunction to be our normal.”
Sooners Helping Sooners seeks to prevent former student athletes from falling into that dysfunction by offering support. The organization works to provide athletes a pathway to a career, support to help them out of hard times or tragedy, or simply that continued friendship after their years of eligibility are over and the wider world seems a little too big.
“In athletics … we call each other family,” Watts said. “We have that at the University of Oklahoma.”
J.D. “Jakie” Sandefer III founded the organization about five years ago. Sandefer was a halfback for OU and played on the 1956 national championship team under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson. After his football days ended and a successful career in the oil industry kicked off, Sandefer continually helped former student athletes find jobs.
Those efforts were formalized with the founding of Sooners Helping Sooners before Sandefer passed away in 2015. But former football players like him continue his effort today; guys like former quarterback Tink Collins, or Jim Riley who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and played for them in Super Bowl VI.
And there’s Jay O’Neal, another Wilkinson commit who played quarterback between 1954-1956, who is now vice president. Sandefer’s wife, Melissa, also serves on the advisory board.
Former women’s basketball player Teresa Turner was instrumental in starting the organization. Advisory board member Patrick Fletcher, or “P Fletch” as he came to be known, said it made sense, as she was his counselor when he came through OU athletics.
“If she wasn’t my counselor, I wouldn’t have graduated,” Fletcher said. “She’s on our team, and she’s still rebounding all the time.”
Fletcher was honest with those gathered in the room: this wouldn’t be the last they’d hear of Sooners Helping Sooners.
“It’s something we’re very proud of,” Fletcher said. “We appreciate your money, we appreciate your resources and we appreciate your time. I’m sorry if your name is on our list, because we’re going to bug you for the rest of your life, three times a year. But, it’s for a good cause.”
Fletcher then talked about Brandon Daniels’ story. Daniels, who starred for Ada High School back in the mid-90s, ended up playing quarterback, wide receiver and as a defensive end for OU between 1996-99.
After his time at OU, though, Daniels fell on some hard times and found himself struggling with addiction. When word got around, Sooners Helping Sooners jumped in and put together a support group for Daniels.
“He spilled his guts to a bunch of old white guys in that room,” Fletcher said. “And we made a plan for him and he followed it.”
Daniels showed courage then and still does to this day, Fletcher said. He’s on his way to a successful career now.
“We’re just going to keep using our team mentality,” Fletcher said.
Jerry Pettibone is the acting president of Sooners Helping Sooners, with Pam Kelleher acting executive assistant. They and O’Neal maintain day-to-day operations.
Various fundraisers throughout the year benefit the organization, in addition to local business partnerships. More help is needed.
Currently, 170 former student athletes have contacted Sooners Helping Sooners for assistance. Between eight and ten are being helped at the moment, and over the years more than 50 have been helped in getting their life on track.
“Thank God that in the time that we were here, the tradition stays strong,” Watts said.