By DOUG DULL
WASHINGTON – “Pee Wee” lives now only in Bender Arena basketball legend.
Long live Darius Gardner.
The point guard that carried the American University men’s basketball team into back-to-back Patriot League championship games and a title in 2014 has graduated.
Not only off the team, but Gardner has now graduated into a full-time job with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. His role is now one of mentor, fundraiser and operations specialist.
Gardner, whose moniker now reflects a higher level of professionalism, recently helped host a group of 125 youth from around the region to a campus tour, a lunch and a basketball game in late February.
As much as Gardner enjoyed being part of the Eagles’ team, he’s enjoying his new role with the Foundation.
“Two years ago, when we were part of this visit with the Ripken Foundation, it changed my life a lot,” said Gardner. “I grew up in a similar environment as these kids – I needed a role model and a mentor to look up to.
“That visit helped me re-focus on the fact that I can now do that for them. Every time now I go to work, it changes my life.”
Gardner started as an intern with the Foundation and has moved into a full-time position as a program coordinator. It was a transition based not just on his work ethic, but the same infectious enthusiasm and drive that helped him win games for AU sometimes just on sheer will.
“Darius is a role model not just for the kids, but he’s a role model for everybody,” said Steve Salem, the president of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and a baseball alumnus of American University. “He’s such a kind, humble young man who works very hard. He does a great job.”
The visit with at-risk middle schoolers from Montgomery and Prince Georges County, Richmond and Baltimore, was part of the Foundation’s Badges for Baseballs program, which matches youth in tough communities with police officers.
“Our goal is to change the dynamic of those relationships,” said Salem, who also noted the campus tour with some Eagle student-athletes was valuable. “We like to expose them to things they might not normally be thinking about.”
Visiting the university and getting a campus tour was valuable also for the student-athletes who served as guides, according to Athena Argyropoulos, the senior associate director of athletics.
“We like to mix in community-service opportunities for our student-athletes,” she said. “This was part of the Foundation’s ‘Kids to College’ event. We like to give them a taste of what a college campus looks like. We’re also hoping they’ll get positive messages to stay in school and follow a healthy lifestyle.
“Hopefully our athletes can make an impact on these young kids.”