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How Four Football Helmets Changed One College Softball Program

When Molly Fichtner took over the Louisiana-Monroe softball program in the fall of 2018, it didn’t take long to realize how her priorities would have to line up. Before on-field success could be had, the team needed a team culture, needed to be built off-the-field to properly build the product between the lines.The following January, the program hosted their first-ever ‘Trivia Night’ fundraiser. The Warhawk coaching staff assembled trivia questions about the program, the school, and the city of Monroe that they call home; Warhawk players bussed tables and conversed with the occupants thereof. For something that the program had never done before, the night was a resounding success.


One year later is where the real story begins. The 2nd Annual trivia night – re-monikered as Hang Out with the Hawks – had a new venue, a larger crowd, and several items that had been donated for a live auction. Among those items were four football helmets.


Just days following LSU football’s National Championship, for the primarily-Louisianian crowd, the hot-ticket item was a Tigers helmet signed by then-head football coach Ed Orgeron. An Alabama helmet signed by Nick Saban and a Texas A&M helmet signed by Jimbo Fisher were nothing to sniff at. A retro ULM helmet signed by a couple of program legends completed the set.


The helmets were to be auctioned off at the very end of the evening. The highest bidder would choose any one of the helmets, then a new set of bids would be taken. Lather, rinse, repeat.


When the bidding began, a number of bids were heard from all over. In the front of the room, one woman placed a bid, then kept bidding. Even as the dollar amount went up and other bidders’ hands went down, she kept going, raising her hand again and again.


No one knew who she was, including most of the people at the table where she sat. But anonymity didn’t stop her, as she was the last person standing and the winning bidder.


Without insult to the great Mr. Saban and the well-known Mr. Fisher, the piece de resistance that evening was the helmet signed by the newly-crowned National Champion head football coach… right? You can imagine the surprise when this unknown woman rose, picked up the ULM helmet, took it back to her table as her choice, and sat back down.


In nearly every part of the room, other attendees exchanged shocked glances. It was almost as if no one knew what had just happened. Did she not know how things were set up? Maybe she didn’t realize she could choose any of the four? Nevertheless, bidding began again and some of the same original bidders jumped back in – they were still after the LSU helmet, after all.


After a few bids from a player’s dad here and a community member there, the woman at the front table chimed in for the first time since she’d sat down. A minute later, the bidding was over and she had won again. This time, she chose the Texas A&M helmet for her newly-budding collection.


The glances this time were less disbelief and more astonishment. What was happening here?


The woman at the front table came out on top with bid #3 and by now, it surprised no one when she chose the Alabama helmet. Initially expected to be first off the block, the LSU helmet bearing Orgeron’s signature was now the only item left. The woman at the front table had crossed into five figures with her spending to this point.


Final bidding came down to an attorney at the back of the room and, you guessed it, the woman at the front table. The entire room was riveted as the bidding continued, and a standing ovation followed when the woman at the front table made it 4-for-4. Standing at the side of the room as the events unfolded, some of the Warhawk players wiped tears from their eyes.


Just who was the woman at the front table?


*****


Her name is Gretchen Stangier. She had never seen a softball game and she knew all of one other person in the room. She was neither a ULM donor nor alumnus, and oh-by-the-way, she was moving to Portland, Oregon two days later.


There’s another important name to know in this tale, that of Carol Young. She was that one person in the room that knew Gretchen, as well as the only other person who knew what was going on even as the rest of the room marveled during the course of the fervent bidding.


Gretchen and Carol were at the event quite by chance – a “Godwink,” as Carol would refer to it later. Preparing for a move to Portland meant selling their Monroe residence. A husband and wife who came to view the house as potential buyers happened to make mention of their plans to attend Hang Out with the Hawks and invited Gretchen and Carol to sit at their table.


From their home on the Bayou, Gretchen and Carol could sit on their porch and hear the ambient sounds of ULM athletics anytime something was happening. Why not attend the event, they thought? Most of the house was packed and ready to go; it could be a fun way to spend a Saturday night.


As things turned out, there was a lot more than fun in store for Gretchen, Carol, and a whole lot of others on that Saturday.


*****


While Gretchen herself had never attended or seen a softball game, Carol had played softball throughout her years, including for a women’s traveling team and she was even considering picking up her glove again as part of the Senior Games.


After arriving at the event, the duo scoped out the auction items and zeroed in on the football helmets. In the process of building a brand new all-inclusive office center in Portland, the idealized “dream room” would be the perfect place to showcase a total variety of things. World War I and II memorabilia passed down from family members. Maybe even some autographed football helmets.


There was also the clear altruistic motives – after being roped into a spur-of-the-moment introductory speech following her four successful bids, Gretchen mentioned the ULM team GPA and their large amount of community service hours as two things that stood out to her during the event.


“I had been looking for something to get behind for the last fifteen years – a charity, a program, something,” Gretchen said. “Nothing ever held my attention for more than six or nine months.”


Until that night in Monroe.


After the bidding and as the standing ovation continued, the entire Warhawk softball team lined up to express their thanks. Many hugged, some cried; even in the present day, more than two years later, that moment sticks with both Gretchen and Carol.


“They were all just so thankful,” Carol said. “I think one thing about it was that they didn’t know us, had never seen us before, and then here we are giving money to their program. We weren’t mom or dad or a grandparent… several of them told us that they had never seen somebody they didn’t know support them like that.”


It almost reads like a movie script if you get right down to it. The cast of characters. The spur-of-the-moment invitation. An event two days before a cross-country move. Four football helmets that were expected to be popular, but which no one expected to be quite that popular. Perhaps best of all, the endeavors that followed.


Make no mistake, that live auction was just the start of something even greater.


*****


Last October, Fichtner and the Louisiana-Monroe program officially broke ground on a new 6,000-square-foot facility called the Stangier-Young Leadership Center.


The facility includes a brand new locker room, a film room, team lounge, a study room – named after Fichtner, at Gretchen and Carol’s insistence – as well as space for equipment, laundry, and other amenities. From a purely on-the-field softball perspective, the fully-covered turf bullpen is a nifty touch.


If those surnames on the building’s name look familiar, by the way, they should. Gretchen and Carol provided respective lead gifts for the project and were part of the planning stages for the entire thing. The duo are an integral part of ULM softball now; they’ve flown back to Monroe from Portland several times, just for softball purposes. They haven’t missed a Hang Out with the Hawks since that inaugural Saturday night. Gretchen has officially been to a softball game now – to several, in fact. They were guests of the school president during a football game last season.


At the ground-breaking ceremony in the fall, both Gretchen and Carol were presented with customized gloves by members of the team. At that same groundbreaking, Gretchen positioned herself also as the program’s leading proponent, spontaneously volunteering head coach Fichtner for speaking engagements to continue fundraising for the project.


Speaking to the crowd at the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Stangier-Young Leadership Center, Gretchen mentioned that spontaneous offering as being uncomfortable for Fichtner. Recalling the Saturday night that started it all, she recognized the student-athlete who served their table and the would-be home buyer that originally volunteered seats at their table to virtual strangers. Both had to be somewhat uncomfortable in doing those things, she said.


Then she stopped. Gesturing at the now-completed Leadership Center behind her, she smiled.


“And look at what uncomfortable creates,” she said.

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