When you think of former Cal Golden Bear and new Miami Dolphin Patrick Laird, your mind probably jumps to the former starting running back’s 1,000-yard seasons and nine touchdowns.
But all of that pales in comparison to off-the-field actions of the Business Administration and Political Science graduate.
During the winter of 2017, Laird created a reading challenge called the Patrick Laird Summer Reading Challenge that encourages kids to read as a way to tackle Summer Learning Loss.
“I was going into my senior season and focusing all on football. You can only work out a couple of hours a day.” Laird said. “I’m going to have all of this extra time. So I thought of this reading challenge. I pitched it to Cal Athletics, and they got on board. And I started to plan it and it was a huge success.”
Laird, who grew up in a family that loves to read and taught him that “education was important,” said that he realized that not all kids have that same family support and mindset, and he felt inspired to help those kids out with his platform.
“There’s this game in the 2017 season, I was starting for maybe more than half the season, and during warm ups before a game… this dad comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, will you meet my son?’” Laird said. “I turned and the son is standing there wearing a Number 28 jersey. It was in that moment… I was like, I have an opportunity to do something, and I want to do it.”
Once he came up with the idea, Laird went to work on making it a reality, planning the entire challenge, working on the website and doing a lot of the communication for it.
He came up with the benchmark for the students, with first and second graders needing to read at least four books, while students from the third through sixth grade needing to read at least six books over the summer.
The reading challenge took a big step forward when he pitched the idea to the Cal Athletic Program and they completely backed it, supplying the tickets the students win if they completed the challenge.
With Cal backing this program, each student who completed it would earn four tickets for the team’s 2018 home opener against North Carolina. Laird said he was so proud of his school for getting involved and his coach, Justin Wilcox felt the same way.
“In college football, you hear so much about what guys do on the field and a lot of times you hear about the mistakes they make off the field,” Wilcox said. “And it’s really special to see somebody like Patrick, who’s a talented football player but also doing so many good things off the field, he’s a great example for our younger players and he’s a great representative of Cal Football.”
The initial challenge was a resounding success, with over 3,500 students signing up for the program and over 1,000 of them making it to the game through the free tickets. Laird said that more kids finished it but weren’t able to make that game. He found a way to give them a prize anyway, whether it was giving them signed material or meeting them after the game.
For Laird, the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl being his last game as a college undergraduate was fitting. Fiesta Bowl Charities has been extremely active in the Arizona community, donating $12.5 million over the last eight years to charities and donating $1 million to teachers last year alone through Wishes for Teachers.
“The Cheez It Bowl and Fiesta Bowl do a lot of great stuff and I’ve been told about the support they give to teachers,” Laird said. “I think it’s really important… I have a lot of great teachers throughout my life that have increased that passion for reading that I had. Without those teachers I wouldn’t be where I am today!”
Laird plans to keep the program going and wants to expand it so he can help the kids that suffer from the summer learning loss the most.
“We’re going to try and find a corporate sponsor… get more promotion and even more kids involved,” Laird said. “(Summer learning loss) especially affects low-income kids so the goal next year is to get more into the Oakland school district, find more of those low-income schools and get out to those schools and get those kids to the game. With a corporate sponsor, we’ll be able to get buses, get teachers extra money, give out books and get more kids signed up and finish the challenge.”
Regardless of how well Laird plays on the field, this reading challenge will make the biggest impact during his time at Cal and it’ll keep going for a long time.