<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Brian Campbell knows what success feels like.

The Buffalo Sabres defenseman has stood before a fallen goalie, the rewarding red from the goal light shining in his eyes, and bathed in the cascading cheers of 18,595 fans at HSBC Arena. He has transformed himself from a sixth-round draft pick in 1997 to an NHL All-Star in 2007. He has become a fan favorite and is often publicly serenaded with heartfelt calls of his unmistakable nickname "Soupy."

Most of the success Brian Campbell has known can be directly attributed to the sport of hockey. Not only was Campbell born with innate talent, but he was also blessed with an unrelenting work ethic. It is that desire to be the best he can be that often keeps Brian on the ice when other players have long packed it in for the day. It is also what fueled his desire to pick the brains of his veteran teammates in the early stages of his career. He wanted to know what they knew and he wanted to use that knowledge to maximize his own talents. The result of his hard work has made him a hero to many in Western New York.

For the students and staff of Summit Academy in Amherst, Brian Campbell is a hero for reasons that have nothing to do with his prowess on the frozen pond. They love No. 51 because he has donated his time and his talents to the school. Campbell has also raised awareness of Summit by filming two public service announcements for the school, which serves 1,600 learning-disabled students from all eight counties in Western New York.

Last Tuesday found Christmas arriving early at Summit as Campbell and buddy Sabretooth played the part of Santa by visiting each classroom and spreading holiday cheer to the delight of both students and staff alike. I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian for an interview and to accompany him as he made his rounds throughout the school. My son Ryan is a student at the school, and I let Campbell know that for our family Summit Academy is nothing short of a godsend.

"Growing up, my dad was a principal, and through him I've always had an appreciation of the importance of education. Playing hockey is of course important, but helping out with things like Summit means just as much," Campbell told me.

It was a change of scenery for someone else that first got Campbell involved with Summit. His roommate, former Sabres enforcer Eric Boulton, was signed as a free agent by the Atlanta Thrashers in August 2005. Boulton had worked with Summit and spoken with Campbell on many occasions about the enjoyment he received from the association. With his buddy gone to Georgia, Campbell stepped up and filled the void at the school, which was started in 1973 in the kitchen of Nancy Harris, whose child suffered from profound hearing loss. It is a decision he has never regretted.

Summit Director of Communications Ellen Spangenthal has worked closely with Campbell over the past two years and has seen the impact he's had on the kids.

"Brian was a natural from the first second he walked into the building. Some athletes might be distant or aloof, but not Brian. He gets right down on the floor with the preschoolers and engages them at their level. It's just amazing to watch," she said.

Trailing along with Campbell for the day was Sabres Manager of Community Relations Rich Jureller. After witnessing just such a display as Spangenthal had referenced, even Jureller found himself taken aback by the moment.

"He's just so genuine," Jureller told me, unable to keep an admiring smile from spreading across his face. "You can't fake that."

With every room that Campbell visited came another throng of intrigued students and admiring staff.

"The kids have all been looking forward to (Campbell's) visit," explained teacher Emily Sass. "They're really excited. This means so much to all of us."

Of all the disabilities covered under Summit's umbrella, autism is the most prevalent. America has seen a dramatic rise in autism rates, and Summit's halls are filled with students who struggle with speech, language and developmental delays associated with the brain disorder. As a parent with a child afflicted, I can tell you that dealing with autism on a daily basis can be maddening. It is an ongoing battle to build bridges across a great divide. Kids with autism and other learning impairments need far more interactive care than parents alone can provide. In many areas of this country, that care is unavailable or unaffordable.

Everyone in Western New York has felt the effect of a dwindling population base. We all have seen friends and family pack up U-Hauls and leave the area to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. Summit, at least, is doing its part to reverse that trend.

"We are a private, not-for-profit organization that is funded by local school districts, the counties and state and private philanthropy," Spangenthal explained to me as a young student exchanged high fives with Campbell. "To get the education we provide at a private school would cost around $75,000 per year. For most families, that just isn't realistic. We've actually had families move here from other states just to take advantage of what we offer at Summit."

As Campbell made his way into another classroom, Summit's executive director Dr. Stephen Anderson caught up with us and took a moment to soak in the joy surrounding the Sabres' current captain. Anderson, a nationally recognized expert in the treatment of children with autism, has been at the helm at Summit for the past dozen years and has seen the school's population explode along with the nation's autism rates.

"Our school-age program has increased 71 percent in the past five years. It's just staggering," Anderson said. "The autism rate is now 1 in 166 kids in America. What we do here has never been more pertinent nor more important."

I asked Anderson what Campbell's involvement with Summit meant to him.

"It's fantastic. The golf tournaments have been huge successes and the T-shirt campaign was a wonderful idea. He's a true role model for everyone here."

The golf tournaments Anderson referred to have been taking place for the past eight years but really took off two years ago when Campbell got involved. The 2008 tournament is already booked. The T-shirt campaign was created completely in the creative mind of Campbell himself.

"I wanted to help out in any way I could and I came up with the idea for the T-shirts. We got an artist involved and came up with the design and places like Dave and Adams and Mississippi Mudd's agreed to sell them. It's worked out really well and helped bring in some extra money," Campbell said.

The limited edition shirts, which sport a caricature of Campbell wearing a jersey featuring his nickname, sell for $20, with $15 of each shirt going directly to Summit. Almost the entire initial run has been sold. What remains has been returned to Summit's school store and can be purchased by contacting them using the information listed at the end of this column.

Even at Summit, Campbell did have to face a little heat. The night before his visit, the Sabres had dropped a 4-1 decision to the Boston Bruins. Student Nathan Queer, a huge Sabres fan, wasn't about to let his idol off the hook without a little ribbing.

"What happened last night?" Nathan asked a caught-off-guard Campbell.

"What happened? We didn't score enough goals."

"Yeah, you'd better do better tomorrow," the teenage student said before adding, "DiPietro is a good puck handler."

Campbell seemed impressed by the young man's knowledge of the New York Islander goaltender's propensity for stick handling.

"Maybe you should come do our pre-game prep tomorrow night."

Nathan's words must have stuck, as Brian and his teammates scored five goals on DiPietro and cruised to victory over the Islanders the next night.

As Campbell neared the end of his classroom visits in the 200 Wing of the school, I looked down to see him posing for a picture with a familiar face: my 6-year-old son Ryan. As I fumble with my camera to get the picture, Suzanne Tuberdyke of the Summit staff comes to my rescue and captures a perfect shot of the hockey hero and my pride and joy. Ryan had just lost his front tooth a couple days prior and looked every bit the part of a true hockey fanatic.

After a couple non-stop hours, Campbell had visited every classroom at Summit. He said his goodbyes and headed out through the doors into the crisp December air. Not long after he departed, the school day ended at Summit and hundreds of kids headed out to their school buses. Many of the kids were still abuzz about his visit, and smiles and laughter abounded aplenty. Campbell bridged that great divide with equal doses of compassion and love. He created a whole new legion of fans, ones who could care less about how many goals he has but do care about the great assist he has given them and their school. In the rush of the hallways, I watched a smile spread across the face of a little boy. He was clutching a Sabretooth doll and was fully connected to the moment. In his face and so many others, the power of what Summit Academy has wrought is evident.

They, like their hero Brian Campbell, now know what success feels like.

To learn more about Summit Academy or to purchase a Brian Campbell T-shirt, visit them online at summited.org or call them at 716-629-3434.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter and author of "Buffalo Soul Lifters." He has worked in the local tourism industry for many years. You can write him at nfreporter@roadrunner.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 28 2007