After Hurricane Irma blew through Polk County last week, leaving debris and destruction in its wake, Polk State basketball extended a helping hand to those in need.
With the college closed, several players had left the area. Eight Eagles remained, however, and they and Head Coach Brandon Giles helped provide relief in Auburndale Bartow, Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Winter Haven.
The volunteer efforts reflect Giles's approach to coaching.
"From day one, my staff and I have communicated to our student athletes that they are and will be more than just basketball players," he said.
"We believe that the ball stops dribbling one day. So, with that said, you have to bring something else to the table. It is our job as coaches to not only push them to reach their highest potential as basketball players on the court but also, and more important, to become better young adults in the community and to their families.
"Better sons, brothers, future husbands, and model citizens is what we're shooting for. You can't play basketball your whole life. This is just a part of our identity, so that's what motivated me to have my guys help those in need."
Giles and his players worked with various organizations and businesses, including Lake Wales High School, Larry Walker State Farm, Robert Binns Roofing, Inc., SIG Insurance, Tampa Electric, Thrive Church, and Willis Pool Service. They also assisted several families that reached out in need of help.
Veron Kalonji and Head Coach Brandon Giles help make temporary repairs on a roof damaged by Hurricane Irma.
According to Giles, helping others benefits not only them but also the team.
"We have a team motto this year, 'Together WINNERS'," he says. "That is not something we use only on the court. If we join together off the court by helping or empowering people, we win in that area as well. That's what 'Together WINNERS' means to this program."
Giles believes each player gained valuable lessons from helping others recover from Hurricane Irma.
"It put into perspective what's really important in life, the importance of helping those in need or just helping people in general," he says.
"Lead with love and not hate. This community has done so much for our program over the years, especially these last two months as we've transitioned into new roles. We are forever indebted to this community and will always be willing to help out where we can. A great friend of mine told me you're either the victim or someone's hero. I think we were the hero to many this week. "
Those heroes included Assistant Coach Jordan Talley and players Kareem Chever-Moore, Jareb Dougherty, Quinton Hamilton, Veron Kalonji, Branislav Labudovic, Stefan Nakic, Bryan Polanco, and Milz Tatum.