February 16, 2013

Making Davey O'Brien banquet night special is complex labor of love

Pulling off the foundation's biggest event takes a lot of work.

Danielle Moorman, executive director of the Davey O'Brien Foundation, has a unique perspective about the annual awards banquet she will coordinate Monday at the Fort Worth Club.

"Essentially, I'm planning a wedding for 700 people and everyone is part of the family," Moorman said. "That's the best way to put it, because it's personal to everyone involved. ... There are a lot of people to make happy and that night, it has to go right."

For the foundation, best known for its annual presentation of the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award that will go to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Monday marks "our Super Bowl," said David O'Brien Jr., son of the late TCU quarterback and 1938 Heisman Trophy winner whose name is also attached to three other awards.

As with any Super Bowl or wedding, the list of behind-the-scenes details required to make the event a success is long. And it varies from year to year, recipient to recipient.

That is why Moorman, a 1999 TCU graduate who has been in her role since 2004, cracks a wry smile when asked about the public perception that she has a pretty cushy job for the other 364 days of the year.

"Everyone thinks ... you work one day a year," Moorman said. "But we're not just dusting off the trophy once a year to have this dinner. It's a year-round job. And a very full job."

It's a gig that involves a variety of skills. Among them: marketing, fund-raising, budgeting, writing, editing, event planning and the tax-code understanding required to make sure the foundation operates within the parameters of a nonprofit organization.

But the greatest gift may be flexibility, whether it involves addressing envelopes for ticket purchasers, soliciting memorabilia for a silent auction, cleaning display cases in the O'Brien Hall of Fame or making a late-night run to a fast-food restaurant for a hungry honoree.

Moorman has done all of the above since arriving as a solo act. In recent years, the staff has expanded to include a full-time assistant and an intern. Regardless of the task, Moorman characterized the brunt of her duties as a "labor of love" for herself and the volunteer collection of 35 officers, trustees and advisory board members who serve as primary decision-makers for the O'Brien Foundation.

The other awards

One of the most time-consuming tasks falls to committee members who decide the winner of the High School Award, a $30,000 college scholarship that will go Monday to Elizabeth Crowling, a three-sport athlete at Dallas Hillcrest and the top-ranked student in her senior class.

With the help of underwriting sponsors, the winner's total increased by $5,000 this year, and $2,500 grants will be given to the other finalists: Hurst L.D. Bell's Kaitlyn Duda, Fort Worth Country Day's Meghann Kasal, Hebron's Dallas Schray and Episcopal School of Dallas' Anna Hansell.

O'Brien oversees the selection committee for the high school honorees, who have received more than $550,000 in scholarships since the program began in 1986. To him, it is the most essential mission of the foundation.

"This would be the part of the award my father would have esteemed the most," O'Brien said. "He would be really excited about what these kids have accomplished. They all see sports as a natural part of life, as a way to use it in a leadership role ... to benefit others and compete in the right light. It's never about winning at all costs."

Combined with the scholarship funds connected to the quarterback award, O'Brien officials have donated more than $850,000 in university grants to college and high school athletes since 1977. The $1 million mark beckons, and O'Brien said it "would mean a lot to us" when the seven-digit total eventually is surpassed.

As chairman of the selection committee, O'Brien helped pare this year's crop of 96 applicants. Each candidate wrote two essays, one about an obstacle overcome in his or her life and the other about a role model. O'Brien said he set aside two full days in December to read the essays, make notes and review the top entries.

From an initial cut to 10 applicants, committee members selected five finalists. They were brought in for 30-minute interviews, where O'Brien and others asked questions designed to make them think on their feet.

"This year, my question was, 'What is your reaction to the Lance Armstrong situation?'" O'Brien said. The answers, as well as the essays, speak to the character of the applicant and are designed to help board members select a recipient O'Brien considers to be cut from the same cloth as the "very humble, modest man" for whom the honor is named.

Others recognized Monday will be Pat Evans and Bobby McGee, two past presidents of the foundation who will be co-recipients of the Charles Ringler Founder's Award. But the focus of Monday's most recognizable honors will be football: Manziel's quarterback award, plus the Legends Award, given this year to Eddie LeBaron, a four-time Pro Bowler who was the first quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

LeBaron, who also played for the Washington Redskins, led the Cowboys to the first victory in franchise history: a 27-24 triumph over Pittsburgh on Sept. 17, 1961. The logistics involved with bringing in the out-of-town winners, plus collecting the football-related mementos to honor them at the awards dinner, can involve some unique challenges for Moorman and her staff.

There are larger-than-life-sized photos that must be produced in conjunction with the Monday news conference. Jerseys, footballs, helmets and other items will go into each player's display case in the O'Brien Hall of Fame. Autographed items, where appropriate, are collected for the silent auction.

And, in the case of Manziel -- a freshman with three years of college eligibility remaining -- there are prohibitions under NCAA rules that O'Brien officials must follow when using his autographed items as part of a silent auction or presenting him with gifts that normally go to each recipient.

Once the big night is over, O'Brien officials will create 10 to 15 personalized photo albums they ship to honorees and sponsors. Then, they restart the process of preparing for their 2014 honorees. There are off-season plans to tweak the presentation of the Hall of Fame exhibits, as well as remodel the adjacent Davey O'Brien Sports Lounge in the Fort Worth Club.

Six-month balance

Moorman said a typical year includes approximately six months of planning, seeking ways to improve on the previous awards dinner and selection process, and six months of execution. The selection committee for the National Quarterback Award, primarily comprising media members and past winners, will be updated and tweaked for geographic balance throughout the country.

During the season, Moorman usually attends six to eight games, seeking to build relationships at schools where quarterbacks could emerge as O'Brien candidates. She oversees award-related correspondence and attends the National Football Foundation dinner in New York to meet new inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame, touch base with past O'Brien winners and glean insights about candidates for future Legends Award candidates.

By the first week in December, the three finalists for the O'Brien quarterback award will gather in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for a live announcement of the winner on the Home Depot College Football Awards show. O'Brien officials host a dinner after the show for all three finalists and their families. Moorman said the 2012 dinner included 24 attendees.

Once all honorees are known, it will be time to finalize plans for another awards dinner. And the wise organizer, Moorman has learned, is prepared for any unexpected turn of events at the Fort Worth Club, where honorees often stay in one of 21 on-site hotel rooms.

Although the college honoree typically gets an extra bowl of pasta during the awards dinner, that doesn't always satisfy a growing quarterback. Moorman learned that during the waning stages of the awards dinner to honor Florida's Tim Tebow, the 2007 recipient.

As the party was breaking up, Moorman received a call on her cellphone. It was Tebow, reporting that the kitchen was closed at the Fort Worth Club but he and his brothers were still hungry and did not know where to go for a late-night snack. Moorman, with the help of 2002 O'Brien winner Brad Banks, intervened.

"Brad Banks and I went through the Whataburger drive-through to get more food for Tim and his brothers," Moorman said.

O'Brien smiled at the memory, adding that such acts "definitely go above and beyond" Moorman's job description but speak to her willingness to make sure the foundation's biggest night of the year is remembered fondly by its participants.

It is, after all, their Super Bowl. Or a wedding for 700 family members. It just depends on your perspective. But either way, it will be the lasting image of the O'Brien Foundation to most people for the next 364 days.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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