It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
Andy Roddick spent just the first four years of his life in Nebraska, but the Omaha native has never lost his Midwestern values.
Though tennis-reared in Boca Raton, FL, and now raising his own young family in Austin, TX, Roddick—the 2003 U.S. Open champion—has spent much of his life living by Nebraska’s state motto, “Equality Before the Law.” He has done so by helping provide equal opportunities for the children of Austin.
“As a tennis player, I was lucky,” says the 34-year-old Roddick, who retired from the ATP tour four years ago. “My parents could afford to give me a lot of opportunities. I can’t relate to these kids [we’re serving.] I don’t know what they’re going through.
“But I do have the ability to pay it forward,” adds Roddick, the former world No. 1 who has a one-year-old son, Hank, with wife Brooklyn Decker. “Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King had causes that they stood for. Andre [Agassi] in Las Vegas and Roger [Federer] in Africa. I’m a by-product of that culture.”
It was Agassi, Roddick says, who changed the trajectory of the young tennis player’s life. When Roddick was 17, Agassi asked him to serve as a practice partner. A discussion ensued, during which Roddick asked his idol, then age 29, if he had any regrets.
“I wish I hadn’t waited so long to start my foundation,” said Agassi, who has raised more than $180 million over the last 22 years for the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which includes the Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas.
Roddick took Agassi’s words to heart and, before he was even old enough to vote, started his own foundation. First located in Boca Raton and now in Austin, the Andy Roddick Foundation is focused on closing the educational gap by providing year-round programs and opportunities for the children of Austin. They include everything from after-school career field trips to educational programs.
This past summer, some 90 children gathered at Pecan Springs Early College Prep elementary school in East Austin to partake in a six-week learning and enrichment opportunity aimed at ensuring that skills learned throughout the school year do not erode during the summer. The students spent each week “traveling through time” from the 1900s to 2016, studying a decade a week, all the while learning about history, science, literature and the arts. They also performed community-service projects.
Many former athletes give back by providing athletic opportunities to under-served populations, but not Roddick. He jokes that many of the students he works with have no idea that he ever played at Wimbledon, let alone was runner-up on Centre Court three times.
“We work with the Austin Parks and Rec to provide daily general health activities for the kids,” says Roddick, “but this is not a tennis-based program. Tennis was my thing. I don’t think my passion has to be their passion.
“We believe not only in cognitive learning, but in teaching practical skills like finance and team building, even how to balance a checkbook. Sports matter, but so do creative outlets. We even brought in Keith Kreeger, a local pottery-maker, to show the kids what he does. We try hard to provide a lot of different experiences.”
Roddick knows that his greatest attribute as a fundraiser is his ability to talk to donors, which has allowed him to amass more than $20 million in contributions over the years. That money means more programs and more chances for advancement.
Not long ago, Roddick was walking through a breezeway at Pecan Springs when he was stopped by a school janitor who had worked there for more than 25 years.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, are you that Roddick guy?’” Roddick remembers. “I wasn’t sure how to react or what he was going to say. But he just looked at me and said, ‘Over the last three months I’ve seen this school and these kids ticking like never before.’ It really made it all worthwhile.”