Past the End Zone: TUFF Shines Light in Tough Times

By Gehrig Parker | Posted 8/17/2020

Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders’ adage says, “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good.” Ask any athlete and they will tell you there’s some truth to what “Prime Time” is saying.

However, a new uniform brings about more than just confidence. It represents a new season, new opportunities and new goals. But in many places, it’s also a prerequisite to playing in organized competition in the first place, like it or not.

So where are you left if you’re a team that can’t afford uniforms or equipment?

That’s the same question University of Michigan senior linebacker Adam Shibley was left asking himself after driving through his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio and seeing youth league players fundraising for uniforms.

“Growing up, I always had the privilege of wearing high-quality sports uniforms and never even thought twice about it,” Shibley said. “Knowing the excitement it brought me putting on a brand new uniform and the values youth sports taught me, I wanted to bring about a solution that’d ensure everyone could feel that happiness, that enjoyment, from receiving uniforms — even though they may not have the resources.”

Already inspired to instill positive change by then-teammate and current New England Patriots defensive end Chase Winovich for his involvement with The ChadTough Foundation, Shibley got to work.

"I went through a program at Michigan called optiMize," said Shibley of the student-led organization that offers workshops, mentorship and funding for students to create self-directed projects. "It was like a 'Shark Tank' incubator. You craft ideas for five months and meet with mentors to learn as much as you can about launching your project."

And in 2018, The Uniform Funding Foundation, better known as TUFF, was born. Through the optiMize program, Shibley received a $5,000 grant and used it to outfit his first team back in Cleveland.

The uniforms come from TopCat Sales, a wholesale distributor of Adidas-branded apparel and footwear headed by former Michigan quarterback John Wangler. Shibley says he can outfit a player with a jersey, pants and accessories such as mouth guards and headbands for about $100 each, bringing the total for an average team to about $3,500. Teams are identified based on need, but an application process is available through the foundation’s website.

To date, TUFF has raised about $60,000, mainly through grants as well as donations from current and former NFL players like Carolina Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, to outfit teams across Cleveland and Detroit.

Though the foundation is Shibley’s baby, he’s quick to credit his Wolverine teammates for their involvement and support. Joining him on TUFF’s executive board are fellow teammates Jared Davis, Jake McCurry, Joel Honigford, Jess Speight and Kwity Paye.

But the help doesn’t stop there. Numerous other Wolverines join Shibley and the others in presenting the new uniforms and equipment in person. Just last month, he and 11 others made the trek to Cleveland to fully outfit four more youth football teams in the city’s Muny League. On July 30, four teams in Detroit’s Police Athletic League received the same donation.

Seeing the pure joy and the smiles on the kids’ faces is by far the best part of the whole process,” said Shibley, who played high school football at Cleveland St. Ignatius for USA Football Master Trainer and NFHS Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Kyle. “The vision that TUFF was built on and all the work involved comes together in that moment. It’s why we do what we do.”

While working to break down the cost barriers associated with equipment and participation fees is a main component of TUFF, equally as important is the focus on mentorship. Shibley says that he and his teammates pair up with different athletes that they’re donating to during these in-person presentations to form relationships that last beyond a single day.

“During our Cleveland trip we stopped at John Adams High School and some special bonds were created,” Shibley said. “Had it not been for the foundation, we would’ve never crossed paths with any of these kids, so it’s definitely been a welcomed development of this whole thing.”

Shibley says next up on the agenda for TUFF is expanding to boys and girls basketball in Chicago and an overall greater emphasis on women’s sports, an initiative being led by TUFF board member and ESPN reporter Maria Taylor. There are also plans to host free youth clinics next summer with University of Michigan student-athletes.

“In the end, we want to affect as many youth athletes as possible in underserved communities,” Shibley said. “It’d be great to donate to every team we could in Cleveland and Detroit, but who knows? We already are moving on to some opportunities that exist internationally. By the grace of God, the possibilities are endless.”


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