Life’s Challenges Can’t Stop Michael Roberts

November 28th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni

Toledo senior overcomes a difficult childhood and family tragedy to become one of the nation’s best tight ends

By Paul Helgren, University of Toledo Associate Athletic Director for Communications

michael-roberts-vs-bgsu-10-15-16oSomething in Michael Roberts just snapped. And it wasn’t the first time, either.

He was used to the teasing from the other kids. That was nothing new. A chunky kid with speech problems, Michael was a regular target for cruel taunts at Union Elementary School in Cleveland. But this one boy, Robert, was another story. He knew how to push Michael’s rage button. Robert had been held back, so he was older and bigger than the other third graders in Ms. Mitchell’s classroom. And while Michael may have a frequent target for Robert’s abuse, he was by no means a passive one. And this time Robert had definitely crossed the line.

“He said something about my mother. I think he said my mother was fat,” said Michael, now a senior tight end for the Toledo Rockets. “I kind of lost it. It was a pretty bad fight, actually.”

Michael picked up a plastic chair and tossed it at Robert, striking him and igniting a bloody fight that spilled into the hallway. It took three teachers to separate them. It was Michael’s third fight at Union that school year and his last. He was expelled. By the time he was in fifth grade, Michael would be kicked out of four different elementary schools. Eventually he was placed in the Education Alternative School, a school for behaviorally challenged youngsters. Troubles of various kinds, much of it not of his own making, seemed to follow him throughout his childhood.

Those difficult times are in the rearview mirror for Michael Roberts these days. One of the most popular players on the Toledo football team, Michael is a criminal justice major who expects to graduate in December. On the football field, he’s having a terrific senior season. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, he’s considered one of the best tight ends in the country and has aspirations to play in the NFL. With a bowl game remaining, he has caught 43 passes this season, the most ever by any receiver in UT history in a single season. He’s twice caught three TDs, in Toledo’s 42-35 win over Bowling Green and again in the regular-season finale at Western Michigan.

So while Michael’s story may have a happy ending, it certainly did not start out that way. Even his biggest supporters could not have imagined the heights he would reach.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that Michael would be a success in life,” said his mother, Maria Young. “But did I think he would be where he is today? I have to be honest and say I didn’t. He’s just an amazing young man. He amazes me every day.”

Difficult Childhood on East Side of Cleveland

It’s only two hours from Cleveland to Toledo, but it’s a full life’s journey from Michael’s humble origins to his life in the spotlight today. Expulsions from school were only one of many challenges he faced growing up. He was raised in a rough neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. His father, whom he never really knew growing up, was sent to prison for robbery and assault when Michael was 12 years old. A speech impediment and attention deficit issues made learning difficult. And a pair of tragic deaths during his senior year of high school nearly derailed his plans to attend college on a football scholarship.

“I grew up around a lot of poisonous people that didn’t have my best interests, or their own actually, at heart,” said Michael. “At the time, I was blinded by just wanting to have fun and be around my friends and people that I saw every day.

“I’m a very different person than I used to be. I feel like I’m adapting into the person I would like to be. I’ve matured as a student, a player and a person. I think what helped me as I got older was realizing some of things that my mom sacrificed for me. I didn’t have a lot growing up, so I’ve always been appreciative of the little things.”

Maria Young was a struggling inner-city single mother, but she was relentless in her pursuit of a better life for Michael and her other son, Freeman. She sought help for Michael’s speech problems at the Cleveland Speech and Hearing Center. She pursued solutions for his attention deficit problems. And despite the anger and violence Michael displayed as a youth, she never lost faith in him. She felt strongly that he was a good kid with great potential. She just needed to get him into a more positive environment.

The process was a slow one, but she never gave up hope. Michael’s string of school expulsions ended in fifth grade when he settled into the Education Alternative School (EAS) in nearby Willoughby. There, Michael got help for his speech problem, a language-processing issue which he eventually conquered. He also received a confirmed diagnosis for ADHD, treatment of which greatly aided his learning capability. But at the time he wanted no part of EAS. None of his friends were there and there were no real challenges for his bright but undeveloped young mind.

“It was a school for kids with behavioral problems, basically,” he said. “The focus was on how you behave and how to help someone suffering from a behavior problem. They did their best but it wasn’t an academic environment. No one was stretching you to be a better student. They were trying to help you be a better person. But it wasn’t challenging. I breezed my way through it.”

In eighth grade, his final semester of middle school, Michael was at last allowed to re-enter a “regular” school with all his friends, back at Union Elementary School, the very same school that kicked him out of five years earlier. Michael was happy with the move but it confirmed for his mother that she needed to get him into a school outside of their area. “I knew I didn’t want him to attend our neighborhood school, but I wasn’t sure what to do” said Maria.

Basketball and the Big Break

That’s when Michael’s first big break came along. Maria was looking for a healthy activity for Michael, so she signed him up to play basketball at a local rec center. An AAU coach eyed his now 6-foot-2 frame and natural athleticism. One thing led to another.

“Lo and behold, a recruiter came to my house sometime after that and asked if Michael would like to play basketball at Benedictine,” said Maria. “It was the answer we were looking for.”

Michael agreed that attending Benedictine changed his life.

“So many things really helped me become who I am but I think the biggest thing that helped my life was being forced to go into a Catholic school,” he said. “Learning proper etiquette, how to do certain things, how to be respectful and have a proper tone with others, I think that was really the biggest thing in my life.  My life changed when I went to Benedictine.”

Michael made friends at Benedictine and developed into a basketball (and later football) star. But it took him a long time to adjust to the structure and academic rigor of a parochial school.

“I was forced to come to this all-boys school that I had no clue about, so I kind of rebelled at first,” said Michael. “I didn’t do well academically. Not wanting to be there played a very big role in my unhappiness in my first two years. I really didn’t turn that attitude around until I got my first college scholarship offer to play football at the University of Louisville. It made me think, I can actually go somewhere and do something, be someone instead of just falling in line and becoming the usual statistic where I’m from.”

Armed with fresh motivation, Michael’s life began to change. He made dramatic improvements in the classroom and became a leader on the basketball and football teams. In his senior season, he accepted a scholarship offer to play football at Ohio University. For the first time in his life, everything seemed to be going his way.

Then tragedy struck. Twice.

A Season of Loss

michael-roberts-with-grandmaDeborah Young was more than just Michael’s grandmother. She was his childhood best friend and confidant, but she also knew how to light a fire under him when he needed it. Michael was her first grandson and she loved him dearly. He loved her every bit as much.

It was October of Michael’s senior season at Benedictine. The Bengals had just defeated their rival, Cleveland Central Catholic. Michael, who caught two touchdown passes, was celebrating with his teammates when he noticed his mother walking onto the field. “She had never been on the field before so I knew something was up,” Michael said.

Maria knew that Michael had plans to join up with his friends after the game, so she wanted him to know right away that his grandmother had been hospitalized. Her situation was looking grim. “I went straight to the hospital with my uniform and pads and everything still on,” said Michael. “I cried and cried when I saw her.”

Deborah Young had been diagnosed with cancer that began in her liver and spread quickly. On December 21, a little more than two months after her diagnosis, she was gone. Michael was devastated.

“My Grandma was the rock of our family,” he said. “She held the family together. I was her first grandson. We had an unbelievable connection. She was like my best friend. We used to talk for hours on the phone. She was the reason I started playing football because she loved watching it. She was a huge Browns fan. She made us all watch the Browns every Sunday, which was usually a loss but she didn’t care.

“I was in the hospital every day when she was sick. My grades suffered. The people at Benedictine helped me as best they could, but I was mentally exhausted.”

In the months following his grandmother’s death, Michael began to lose his motivation. Without his beloved grandma to urge him on, he lost interest in school. He didn’t feel the same joy playing sports, either. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he would go to college. Right about then he was hit with the second blow in less than five months.

The news came from an unlikely source. “Lake Erie Correctional Institution” lit up on Michael’s caller ID. It was his father, Michael Roberts, Sr., calling from prison. Michael didn’t take the call. Or the dozens that followed. Finally, annoyed, he picked up and received the heart-wrenching news.  One of Michael’s younger brothers, Cameron, had been killed by a single gunshot wound to the stomach. The death was later ruled accidental.

“It’s something you don’t come to grips with at first. It was very unbelievable when I first heard it,” said Michael. “Then you are just kind of replaying the moments that you had together. You never expect to have to bury your younger brother. That was the last time I actually cried until the BYU game.”

The loss of two loved ones in such a short period of time was almost too much for Michael to handle. He felt like giving up. Two days after his brother’s funeral, Michael informed his mother he wasn’t going to college. She would have none of it.

“Look how far you’ve come, everything you’ve accomplished. You can’t throw it away now,” she said. “Grandma is up in heaven cussing you out right now.” That talk set things straight. Michael was going to college.

As painful as that period in his life was, Michael now finds positive meaning in the experience.

“I use my brother and my grandmother as inspiration in all things I do,” he said. “I’ll never get a chance to say hello or goodbye to them, so I just use their spirit. I’ve been through a lot of personal battles so I use that to build my strength. I’ve done my grieving.  I try to use my grief to positively affect my life.

michael-roberts-with-cards-2“There are a lot of reminders of them that I keep close to me. From my brother’s funeral, I have a shirt that his mother made with Cam’s face on it that says ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ It’s the last thing I have of my brother’s so I still wear it with pride. From my grandma, I have six birthday cards that I keep. I had them laminated. I bring the last two cards she gave me in travel bag for every game, home and away, and read them before every game and put them in my locker.

“Losing my grandmother was the hardest thing I’ve been through. But I feel like I can use that. If I’ve been through something like that, what’s another sprint in practice? I hate running at practice. But I use that. I tell myself, I can finish this sprint. I’ve been through worse. Might as well put my head down and grind through what’s in front of me.”

A Change of Heart and Michael’s “Other” Families

Michael needed another dose of that positive attitude a few months later. A little more than week before he was to depart for college, he got the word from his high school coach. The NCAA Clearinghouse ruled him academically ineligible to play football as a freshman. If he went to Ohio University, or any Division I college for that matter, he would have to pay his own way. He wasn’t sure what to do now, but he felt he needed to change his course. He picked up the phone and called then-Toledo head coach Matt Campbell.

Toledo was a close second choice of colleges for Michael, but he was attracted Ohio’s rural setting. It was about as different from the east side of Cleveland as you could get. After he choose Ohio, Michael called Campbell to tell him the news. Campbell was gracious and told him if he changed his mind he would always have a home in Toledo.  “So I called him a week before school started and asked him if I could still come to Toledo,” said Michael. “He said yes, definitely.”

Michael was happy with his choice of schools, but he still had a tough road ahead of him. Being academically ineligible meant he couldn’t practice with the team until January. He also had to pay his own way for school, which meant working two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. But one thing that helped Michael through that transition period was support from an unlikely source.

michael-roberts-with-kobylinskisThe Kobylinskis are an ordinary suburban family from Brecksville, halfway between Cleveland and Akron. Mark Kobylinski is a teacher and assistant football coach at Benedictine. He and his wife Nichole, and their three children, have basically adopted Michael.

“I’m very close with the whole family,” said Michael. “I call Mrs. Kobylinski ‘mom.’ I call Mr. Kobylinski “coach.” Every time I go home, I make sure I stop by and say hello to the ‘brothers and sisters” from my other family.”

The relationship began when the Kobylinskis’ youngest son, Brayden, began attending Benedictine boys’ basketball games with his family. His favorite player by far was Michael Roberts.

“Brayden thought Michael was a superhero,” said Nicole. “He was four years old at the time. When it came for his turn for show and tell at preschool, he said he wanted to bring Mike Roberts. He was upset when we told him you can’t bring a person to show and tell. So I called the teacher and she suggested having Michael come and visit with the kids for a morning. He did, and all the kids loved him.”

The Kobylinskis told Michael they would do whatever they could to help him, and they did. Mark helped him navigate some of the details of last-second enrollment at Toledo. The whole family helped him pack up for his move to his dorm at UT. They even held a last-minute graduation party for him at their home.

michael-roberts-with-nicole“At that point we decided to see him through to the end,” said Nicole. “We didn’t care if he played football or not. We just wanted to see him go to college. From there the relationship took off. We just love him. My kids look upon him like a big brother. We come to as many UT games as we can, and we listen or watch on the Internet if we can’t make it. I text him throughout the game and right afterward just so he can see the messages later and know we were watching the game.”

Nicole was a little worried at first about what Michael’s mother might think of an unknown white family playing such a big role in her son’s life. Maria was concerned at first, but that quickly changed when she met the Kobylinskis.

“At first I admit I was a little jealous but they have been absolutely amazing from day one,” said Maria. “They are an inspiration. I love them. I couldn’t ask for a better influence for my son. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for him and I want them to know that. They are always there for him.”

Said Nicole, “Unfortunately, some people see us and think it’s like that movie, ‘The Blind Side.’ It’s not like that at all. We don’t have any money. My husband is a Catholic school teacher. And Michael has a mom who loves him and has been a really good mother under very difficult circumstances at times. We’re all good friends now. I talk with Maria often. I tell her, ‘Thanks for sharing Michael.’ He’s like a gift from God. We’re just here for him.”

In addition to adding the Kobylinskis into his extended “family,” Michael has also been able to reunite with an actual blood relative—his father. Michael Roberts, Sr., who was released from prison in 2014. He has since moved to Virginia, got married, and began working as a short-order chef. He is basically starting his life over.

“He’s doing very well for himself, actually,” said Michael of his father. “I visited him and his new family for the first time last summer (in 2015). He and his wife, Amber, have three kids. They just had a baby girl. They are a very nice family. I even went to church with them. It made me feel like they are the kind of family I wish I had growing up.

“I’d say we’ve become the closest that we’ve ever been. He’s talked about coming to a football game. He says he’s coming to my graduation. He’s definitely making the effort. I’m very proud of how he has transitioned into becoming an adult.”

“This is Your Time”

With so many challenges facing Michael, it’s somewhat ironic that the last thing to fall into place for him at college was what got him there in the first place – playing football. For most of his college football career, he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. After sitting out his grayshirt year, Michael played sparingly as a freshman in 2013. In 2014, he appeared in nine games and had just four receptions, though two were for touchdowns. Finally, in 2015, he began to break through. Splitting time at tight end with Alex Zmolik, Michael caught 21 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns. Good numbers, but nothing like the eye-popping stats he has been putting up this season. For Michael, it’s been a long time coming.

“I won’t lie, it hasn’t always been easy,” said Michael. “Lots of times I would call my mom because I wasn’t playing, or no balls were coming my way. But I can pretty much get through anything. It really comes down to how you view things. I’ve used everything that’s happened to me in positive light. If I didn’t, I might have self-destructed by now.”

Those words have special meaning for Maria. No one is enjoying his success this year more than she is. After all, she never had any doubt he would be a success.

“I’m so loving it,” she said. “I kept telling him his time would come. So this year with all the success he’s having, I told him, this, right here, right now. This is your time.”

Has anyone ever deserved it more?

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A century of preparing educators: Judith Herb College of Education celebrates 100 years

October 27th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni

By Dr. Edward A. Janak
UT associate professor and chair of foundations of education

education-1Throughout its history, The University of Toledo has seen its mission as fulfilling the needs of the city. The Judith Herb College of Education has demonstrated this notion for a century.

UT started as a municipal university — The University of the City of Toledo — one of three such institutions in the state. From its earliest years, UT partnered with the University of Ohio in Miami (later called Miami University) to provide a degree and teacher training: Students would attend UT for three years taking classes from faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences followed by one year at Miami. This was in addition to its Bureau of Research and Public Service that housed a Department of Educational Efficiency Service. Its mission was to serve Toledo’s educational organizations as well as the officers and teachers of the schools in the city.

In 1914, the state of Ohio enacted a new law regulating which universities could produce accredited teachers; only those universities on the state “approved” list could do so. Acting quickly, the University president addressed the Board of Directors reporting that local school districts were requesting UT take steps to become approved. Thus, in March 1916, the Board of Directors created the Teachers College of Toledo University. It started with a faculty of four: Josephine Leach, D.W. Henry, A.W. Trettien (who would become the first dean and serve until 1926) and A.M. Stowe.

education-2Once it was fully established, the college moved ahead rapidly, expanding programs and hiring faculty to satisfy the demand for teachers. In 1917, it added a University Evening High School to provide instruction to adults in the community seeking a high school diploma. In 1919, it changed title from Teacher’s College to College of Education. In 1926, David Henry became dean and would hold the position for more than 20 years. During his tenure, the college would stabilize its program but continue to grow in numbers of students and faculty.

Starting in 1927, the college began offering graduate programs in elementary and secondary education. Its undergraduate curriculum had expanded from a dozen courses to more than 30 offerings, balanced between foundational and pedagogical courses. In the mid-1930s, there was talk of an imminent teacher shortage; the College of Education increased its work to try and satisfy this need. By decade’s end, the college sponsored a Demonstration School to put into practice what it taught.

Education students in 1962

Education students in 1962   

There was a shift in the purpose of schooling nationwide, moving from purely academics to teaching the whole child and schooling for life. As usual, the College of Education kept up with the trends; by the 1940s, there was a rise in vocational education and preparing teachers for the trades of northwest Ohio, physical education, as well as explicitly progressive teaching courses. The college also began offering courses in school administration.

Of course, the decade also saw the horrors of World War II; UT was on the forefront of wartime service offered through its students in all areas. The College of Education joined in by teaching “school the year round” to allow students to matriculate in three years and then enlist with a degree.

As the purpose of schooling expanded and the baby boom created a tremendous need for teachers. By the 1950s, in addition to elementary and high school teachers, the college was producing teachers in vocational education, physical education, business education, home economics and art. The college was experimenting with a series of courses titled Problems in… and Research in…; teachers in the city would partner with a faculty member to work on active research problems impacting daily practice in the classrooms.

Members of the Toledo Student Education Association rode in the 1965 Homecoming parade.

Members of the Toledo Student Education Association rode in the 1965 Homecoming parade.

During that decade, Mary M. Gillham became the head librarian for the University, a position she would hold with pride for years. In fact, Gillham Hall — current home to the Judith Herb College of Education — is named in her honor as the building used to be the library.

As the turmoil of the second half of the 20th century hit the state, the college continued steadfastly producing quality teachers and school administrators throughout the decades. It kept up with the national trends and produced teachers aware of the latest in research and pedagogy.

After operating as a municipal school for more than 80 years, the University became a state institution in 1967. That big change meant a new name — The University of Toledo — and subsidy for students and state support for capital improvement. Enrollment steadily grew, and buildings popped up expanding the campus.

Judith Herb talked with students at the Judith Herb College of Education’s 2006 fall welcome picnic.

Judith Herb talked with students at the Judith    Herb College of Education’s 2006 fall welcome    picnic.   

In 2006, a couple months after the University merged with the Medical University of Ohio, UT graduates Judith and Marvin Herb, and their sons, Thomas and Jon, contributed $15 million to fund numerous scholarships as well as educational assessment support and research initiatives in the College of Education. The Herbs designated $8 million of the gift for the Herb Scholars Fund, with another $4.25 million going to support the Herb Research Initiatives Fund, which bonded together researchers with a common interest in learning. The remaining $2.75 million funded the creation of a faculty development and electronic assessment support system fund. Additionally, to recognize the single largest donation in school history, the college was renamed in honor of Judith Herb.

Julie Kandel, who was a senior majoring in education in 2007, right, gave a tour of Gillham Hall, the renovated home of the Judith Herb College of Education, to Judith Herb, left, and others. The state provided $12.4 million in funding for the renovation of the building, which was rededicated to the college in a special ceremony in August 2007 following the public tours.

Julie Kandel, who was a senior majoring in education in 2007, right, gave a tour of Gillham Hall, the renovated home of the Judith Herb College of Education, to Judith Herb, left, and others. The state provided $12.4 million in funding for the renovation of the building, which was rededicated to the college in a special ceremony in August 2007 following the public tours.

“The University of Toledo’s mission, especially that of the College of Education, was at the heart of our decision to make this pledge,” Judith Herb, a 1961 UT education graduate, said in 2006. “Marvin, our sons and I believe deeply in the power of education. If we can help to make a difference in the lives of some future educators, we are proud to do so.”

Following two years of major renovations, Gillham Hall, a building that has been a cornerstone of Main Campus since 1952, was rededicated in 2007. The state of Ohio provided $12.4 million in funding for the project. The building’s exterior remained primarily untouched while the interior was completely revamped. Gillham Hall opened fall semester that year with state-of-the-art classrooms that range in capacity from 18 to 40 students; a 75-seat tiered multipurpose auditorium/classroom/meeting room; three technology support center computer labs; a doctoral dissertation presentation/defense conference room; department suites that include student learning community space; and a brick entryway that offers the opportunity to inscribe dedications.

At this moment, the college is anticipating how it can satisfy the needs of 21st century schools in support of the mission of the comprehensive university. It is finding innovative ways to prepare educators for pre-kindergarten through university classrooms, as well as supporting those already teaching by offering programs that include:

  • Traditional undergraduate programs credentialing teachers in early childhood, elementary, middle childhood, career and technical education, adolescence to young adult education, special education interventionist, as well as the areas of art, foreign language and music;
  • Nontraditional certification via LAMP — Licensure and Master’s Program;
  • College Credit Plus teacher credentialing programs in biology, chemistry and English;
  • Endorsements in reading, preschool special needs, early childhood generalist (grades 4-5), and transition to work;
  • Online programs include master’s degrees in educational technology as well as early childhood education, special education, and certificates in virtual educator, peace education, diversity, and educational assessment;
  • On-campus certificates in culture and change in institutions and interprofessional teaming in early childhood education;
  • Principal and school district leader licensure programs;
  • A full slate of master’s, educational specialist and doctoral degrees in all areas, including higher education, to prepare those working in colleges and universities; and
  • Innovative centers such as the Center for the Advancement of Professional Learning Communities and Virtual Collaboration, the Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide, the Daso Herb Center for Advanced Research in Education, and the Center for Nonviolence and Democratic Action.
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Revved up: Assistant dean pays tribute to alma mater with Rocket Room

October 27th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni

By Vicki L. Kroll

donovan1One look at Donovan Nichols’ Rocket Room and it’s clear: He’s got spirit; yes, he does.

The assistant dean for student involvement and leadership exudes enthusiasm explaining how he put together the ultimate UT fan zone.

“The whole idea has been 14 years in the making,” he said looking around his basement walls emblazoned with UT jerseys, ticket stubs, posters, stories and more. “But actually putting this together took about five months.”

donovan2He pointed to a wooden sign featuring old Rocket and UT logos that bookend the stenciled name “Rocket Room.”

“That sign is actually what started the whole idea. When I was a student, I was walking around with Tom Trimble [then associate director of the Student Union] in Rocky’s Attic, and this sign was sitting in a corner,” Nichols recalled. “Tom said it was a sign that was hanging in Rocky’s Attic in the 1980s, and he said, ‘We’re probably going to throw it out.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not.’”

It was 2002 when Nichols rescued the relic and stored it at his parents’ house until now.

“Back then, I said, ‘When I have my own house, I’m going to create a Rocket Room. I’m going to carpet it with field turf and put that sign in it.’”

donovan4With a head’s up and permission from Athletics, Nichols snagged pieces of turf in April during the Glass Bowl renovations. Prepping it for installation took most of the summer.

“The turf fibers are about an inch long with about a half inch of infill — sand granules and rubber pellets to make it feel more like real grass — so I had to get all of that infill out,” he said.

After power-washing and scrubbing the turf, Nichols cut and put pieces together to resemble a field with help from his girlfriend, Alycia Demey; friend and UT alumnus, Rob Bleile; and father, Tom Nichols.

The bar features a piece of the blue rocket from the center of the field. “I was lucky enough to get that piece, so I wanted to showcase it,” Nichols said.

Collecting UT memorabilia started during his undergraduate days when he helped establish a tradition. The year was 2000, and Nichols and his friend, Jason Rodriguez, created Blue Crew.

donovan5“Blue Crew’s first game ever was traveling to Penn State. There were four of us that went. About 92,000 people were in the stadium, and only about 2,000 of which were Toledo fans, but we were louder the entire game,” Nichols said pointing to a story about UT’s upset of the Nittany Lions, 24-6. “That was a really cool experience for me because that was the founding of Blue Crew.”

It was the Rocket Fanatic group from the 1990s that inspired Nichols and Rodriguez to start the masked spirited squad.

“We wanted to create something that emulated the Rocket Fanatic group, but do something that would continue the spirit even after we graduated,” Nichols explained. “So we decided to wear the masks and wigs so we would cloak our identities because it wasn’t about us being the spirited students, it was about having the positive energy and the positive spirit always represented at the University.”

He still radiates that energy and excitement for the Rockets and his alma mater. Standing by his Blue Crew uniform, he said, “My mask is signed by Chester Taylor, who was one of the great UT football players. I have a poster of him and a jersey. He was a running back for the Minnesota Vikings and a couple other NFL teams. I try to pay tribute to some of the players who were around when I was a student because I knew some of them. In the stairwell, there’s a poster of [quarterback] Bruce Gradkowski and [wide receiver] Lance Moore, both who were students when I was around, and I have pictures of them in the NFL as well to display their success.”

donovan3Then there’s a white football shirt with a midnight blue No. 16, which was worn by the quarterback known as the “Wizard of Oohs and Aahs.”

“I wanted to highlight Chuck Ealey because it’s incredible the accomplishment that he had; he’s the only collegiate quarterback in history to go undefeated. From 1969 to 1971, the Rockets went 35-0,” Nichols said. “And he was undefeated in high school, too.”

That sense of history is everywhere in the Rocket Room — the sheet music for “Fair Toledo,” the alma mater, is framed, along with “U of Toledo,” the fight song. Also under glass is the UT Traditions brochure Nichols created after more than 500 hours of research on the school’s history.

“I wanted to walk down memory lane and teach some UT history, and display why people should be proud of The University of Toledo,” he said. “Hopefully, the Rocket Room will inspire more people to show their pride in the institution.”

After graduating with honors with a bachelor of arts degree in communications in 2004 and a master of education degree in higher education in 2006, Nichols stopped to say goodbye to Dr. Kaye M. Patten, senior vice president of student affairs.

donovan6“She went over and took this [2005 GMAC Bowl Championship poster] off her office wall and gave it to me and said she appreciated everything I had done for the University. I was moving to Las Vegas, so it was a piece I took with me. And when I worked in Georgia, it was with me there, and now it’s back with me at home.”

“Donovan was one of the most passionate UT students. He started Blue Crew, created the Rocky doll, was Student Government president,” Patten said. “It’s so nice to have him back where he belongs to inspire that same love for the University in our students.”

“I always thought it would be fun to come back to UT to work, but I didn’t necessarily have a plan to come back. I knew I could show my Rocket pride wherever I went. When I worked in Las Vegas, I created an alumni chapter out there,” he said. “But it feels comfortable in Toledo; I’m home.

“I think if I had a Rocket Room like this in any other city, it wouldn’t be as cool,” he added and laughed. “At least here, a lot of people can come over and see it and appreciate it. Go Rockets!”

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Check out UT’s story

October 27th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni

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School of Visual and Performing Arts Survey

October 27th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni


The University of Toledo School of Visual and Performing Arts is participating in the 2016 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) – a one-of-a-kind survey that explores the lives of arts alumni nationwide. SoVPA is partnering with SNAAP to learn more about its alumni’s experience studying the arts. If you’re a UT visual and performing arts alumni, have you received your SNAAP invitation yet? If not, email your contact information to

You can help us understand how your education shaped your experience, and how you’ve used what you learned—in your work, in your life. Your experiences and ideas will help shape programs for students at UT and in arts education nationwide

Alumni completing the survey will have access to a site to see how their educational and career experiences compare with alumni from across the country. See where other arts graduates live, where they work, what they earn and how their arts educations have influenced their lives.

If you have not received your SNAAP invitation, make sure that you are on the list by sending your contact information to If you haven’t updated your information with the UT Alumni Association in a while, you should do so, but to receive a survey invite, email Also, please share this article with fellow UT visual and performing arts alumni.

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