Big Man on Campus

Honoring one coach by helping others who are in crisis

By Sue Baldani

Coaches can have a huge influence in young athletes’ lives, and not just on the playing field. They are often vital in instilling important values such as responsibility, hard work, and humility, and some become much more than coaches to their young players.

One coach who touched many lives was Jamal Powell, a Texas Christian University standout and former NFL and CFL (Canadian Football League) player. “Coach Powell had a tremendous impact on me,” says Casey Kroll, who played football for Powell at James Madison University in Virginia and later followed him into the Texas coaching circuit.

“When I met Coach Powell in my senior year of college at JMU, I was at a crossroads in my life. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after I graduated, and had aspirations to be a lawyer. But then I looked at Coach Powell and thought ‘What a cool job he has. He’s making such a difference in young people’s lives.’ He was someone I looked up to and who helped me through some difficult times as a student, as an athlete, and as a young person.”

When Coach Powell was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome in 2018, he not only lost a considerable amount of weight but also lost feeling and motor function in his extremities. Months later, after spending a significant amount of time in the hospital, Powell was then diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. After undergoing surgery to remove the cancer, it returned in the summer of 2020, this time in his stomach.

“People within the Southern Methodist University [where Coach Powell was the assistant football coach] and JMU football community as well as the Dallas community helped in whatever capacity they could,” says Kroll.

During this time, Kroll was working on starting up The Big Man Foundation, a 501(3)(c) organization that would help coaches and their families going through crises like the Powell’s.

Sadly, Coach Powell passed away on April 6, 2021 at the age of 39, and the name of the organization is a tribute to him; Powell called his offensive line unit the “Big Man Fraternity.”

“We had a really great opportunity to expand his legacy and there’s no better way to honor him than by helping others, so that’s what our real drive is – being able to help and serve other coaches,” says Kroll.

Kroll, a native of Nokesville, missed his family (he was the oldest of four children) and left Texas to come back home. “I then got linked up with Coach Greg Hatfield, who was my high school coach when I was at Kettle Run High School in Fauquier (Kroll graduated in 2010). They had an opening on their staff and I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to work with him. When he recently left to coach at Battlefield High School [in Haymarket], I went with him and am now serving as the offensive line coach.”

Today, Kroll is the founder and president of The Big Man Foundation, which has been in operation since December 2020. “We’ve had over 100 people donate so far, and we have five or six ambassadors and six board members.”

The first Jamal Powell Legacy Grant will be bestowed later this year. The deadline to apply for this quarter is September 3 and the amount of money given will depend on the number of people who apply and how much money the organization raises. Instead of just choosing one family, they hope to be able to help a few different families.

“Right now, our goal is to give out grants quarterly, but we also want to have emergency financial relief available, which may be needed right away,” says Kroll.

Their focus right now is to get the word out about their organization. “We have to make a big push to get people to share who we are, what we do, and why it’s important. We just recently started an ambassador program for people in the athletics community who align with our mission and to share that mission.

“Aaron Stinnie was so passionate about it he became one of our board members,” says Kroll. “I played with him at JMU for Coach Powell, and he now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who recently won a Super Bowl.”

Also on the board is Blaine Stewart, a teammate of Kroll at JMU and currently the coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers; Bryan Schor, quarterback of the JMU 2016 National Championship team; Lou Chiccehitto, Kroll’s college roommate; Dr. Jennifer Taylor, Kroll’s professor at JMU; and Aaron Epstein, who was Powell’s neighbor and also worked in fundraising at JMU.

The 100% volunteer-based organization is hoping to raise $120,000 by the end of 2021. “Every decision we’ve made up until this point has not been based around what is best for The Big Man Foundation right now, but instead focused on our long-term growth and solvency and looking at what we want to be doing five or 10 years from now,” says Kroll.

Besides illness-related expenses, The Big Man Foundation will also help coaches and their families affected by natural disasters or domestic violence. In the future, he hopes the foundation will be able to help in even larger ways, such as paying off someone’s mortgage or all of their medical bills.

“One of our other goals, and this is really close to my heart, is to be able to hire Coach Powell’s wife, Rachel Powell, to work with us, to be able to give her a job and stability. And it would be an awesome opportunity to work with someone who has lived our mission and knows why we’re doing what we do.”

When the board receives applications for grants, it’s going to look at each applicant on a case-by-case basis to find out what that particular person’s needs are and how they can best help each family. “We aim to give financial resources, but some people might not need those, and instead need some other type of support such as a therapist or baby sitter. One of the things Mrs. Powell needed was someone to watch her children and go to the grocery store. With three kids (Jaden, now 13, Ellison, 8, and William, 5) and a husband in a wheelchair, she needed help with daily tasks.

The foundation would also like to expand to include a wellness outreach program for student athletes and coaches. “We’re going to try to work with schools and sports teams, and we’re sharing resources with Morgan’s Message, a nonprofit focusing on student athlete mental health.”

Like every nonprofit, The Big Man Foundation needs funding, and lots of it, to fulfill its long-term mission. If people aren’t in a place to help financially, they can volunteer their time and/or talent. Families in crisis often need reliable and caring babysitters, house cleaners, tutors to help children with homework, and/or counselors for emotional support. People can also help by getting its message out, following the organization on social media, and/or signing up to become an ambassador.

To find out how you can help support and refer families, or if you are a coach in need, go to www.thebigmanfoundation.org, like it on Facebook, and follow on Twitter @thebigmanfound and on Instagram @thebigmanfoundation.

Written for Haymarket & Gainesville Lifestyle Magazine in Virginia.

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