NCAA approves SIU charity effort

Two thoughts crossed Southern Illinois coach Dale Lennon’s mind while senior safety Mike McElroy told him his idea to raise money to help fight against cancer.

First, Lennon thought it was a great idea. What McElroy sought to do was allow people bid to have the name of someone they knew who was affected by cancer placed on a Saluki player’s jersey for one designated game. All of the money raised would be distributed locally by the American Cancer Society.

“No. 1, it was coming from a player,” Lennon said. “I liked the concept of trying to do something for the community, something for a worthwhile cause.”

But Lennon’s second thought trumped his first. He was almost certain the NCAA would never allow it.

“When he presented the concept, I didn’t really think there was a chance this would happen,” Lennon said. “I kind of gave Mike a list of things we needed him to do, hurdles we needed to clear.”

McElroy went to work. He coordinated efforts with Southern Illinois’ athletic department. He sent multiple hand-written letters and emails to the NCAA. He tried to get across to the NCAA the positive impact the fundraiser could have not only for the community, but also for college athletics.

“There’s so much negative publicity in college athletics these days,” said McElroy, whose idea was a variation of a fundraiser his high school had done. “Guys doing something wrong. Guys screwing up. This is one thing that harped on the positives for the community, positives for the NCAA.”

Then after not hearing anything for over a month, McElroy received an email from the NCAA. It had decided it would allow a one-game exception for Southern Illinois’ request.

“That caught everybody off guard,” Lennon said. “We sat back and, ‘Whoa, we can do this.’”

And thus, Southern Illinois’ Black Out Cancer Game was born.

Southern Illinois has created a website -- SalukisBlackOutCancer.com -- where it is accepting bids to have names placed on 80 players’ jerseys for the Salukis’ Nov. 12 home game against Eastern Illinois. After the game, the bidder will be given the jersey by the player who wore it. Bids will be accepted until 10-14 days before the game.

As of Thursday $250 was the lowest bid needed to secure a name, and the highest was shared by two $5,000 bidders. The current 80 highest bidders totaled $45,980.

Because of all of the various NCAA hurdles, the special black Under Armour jerseys that will be worn by Southern Illinois on Nov. 12 could not be purchased by the school, so a couple local businesses stepped forward and bought the jerseys.

Along with the school’s help, McElory has been attempting to get the word out about the auction as much as possible. In doing so, he’s encountered people who have had cancer or were connected to others who were affected by it.

“That’s part of the rewarding aspects of this,” McElroy said. “People I don’t even know who have experienced cancer have come up to me, and you can see the joy on their face. It’s been really cool to see.”

The fundraiser also has a special meaning for Lennon. His father died of cancer.

“I lost my dad three years ago,” Lennon said. “Definitely, it hits home. I think for anyone who has lost someone it hits home.”

McElroy hasn’t known anyone personally affected by cancer, but he understood the devastating impact it has had on so many people’s lives. His hope was he and his teammates could do something to help.

“It’s one of those things you always want to leave a legacy,” McElroy said. “The amount of tackles and interceptions you have will be forgotten. Guys will come in and beat those. We can say we were part of this, and we made a difference.”

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.