It was a quiet moment off to the side of a crowded banquet room, but it spoke volumes about the appreciation the father of a departing St. Ambrose football player felt for the coaching staff that helped his son grow.
Illinois Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Donaldson said he felt compelled to present SAU Defensive Coordinator Jeff Girsch a personal challenge coin typically awarded to soldiers under his command for special achievements.
The father credited Girsch and his fellow SAU coaches for helping his son Tyler Donaldson grow into an all-conference linebacker and the football team's 2013 winner of the Champions of Character Award.
As importantly, said Mike Donaldson, Girsch fulfilled a recruiting promise to look after his son while the father was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
"Coach Girsch kind of paid a little more special attention to Tyler while I was gone to Afghanistan that year," he said. "He and Tyler had a close bond and I just couldn't thank him enough."
In 19 years of coaching, Girsch said he never has experienced that level of appreciation. "This is one of the neatest things I have ever been given," he said. "It blew me away. I didn't even know if I could accept it because I know the commitment he made to be able to present such a coin."
The sixth-year defensive coordinator said promising the Donaldsons the St. Ambrose staff would look after the son during the father's absence wasn't a hard vow to make.
"He knew we were here for Tyler," Girsch said. "He made it clear that was something he was looking for during the recruiting process because Mike knew he was going to be deployed. We took that to heart, as I think most staffs would. But that is also something that is very close and dear to us because Coach (Matt) Drinkall has family in the military and my father served as well."
Girsch said the attention and direction he provided Tyler Donaldson "wasn't anything out of the ordinary" and he stressed head coach Mike Magistrelli, fellow fulltime assistant Drinkall and the rest of the SAU coaching staff were equally attentive.
Command Sgt. Maj. Donaldson said his son's collegiate experience certainly affirmed the faith both placed in selecting St. Ambrose four years ago.
"I still remember the first day of his freshman year, Coach Girsch told Tyler, ‘If you do the right things, you will get on the field, but, more importantly, you will graduate in four years,'" he said.
In addition to winning the Champions of Character Award for achievement in five core values - integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership — Tyler Donaldson is on schedule to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sport management in May, his proud father said.
"We are super excited with the choice we made," Command Sgt. Maj. Donaldson said. "He could have gone to bigger schools to play ball, but he chose St. Ambrose for a reason and it worked out great."