Sunnyside Unified School District administrator Jose Gastelum recently e-mailed five local businesses requesting a donation of funds to help the school district purchase commemorative rings for the state champion boys soccer and wrestling teams.
He became concerned when he was rejected by almost all of them.
The law firm of Schmidt, Sethi and Akmajian did not take long to answer. None of the members of the firm — Ted A. Schmidt, Dev Sethi and Peter Akmajian — had ever met Gastelum.
“Within 30 minutes, we get a response, saying he’d be honored to do it,” Gastelum said of Schmidt, who is also the president of the FC Tucson Soccer Academy.
“I have a deep, deep respect for him and his partners for stepping up and helping our community out,” Gastelum continued in front of a packed crowd at the Sunnyside school board meeting on Tuesday night.
The 50 championship rings purchased by Schmidt, Sethi and Akmajian for more than $10,000, are more than accessories to a title. Gastelum, Casey O’Brien (Sunnyside’s soccer coach and athletic director) and Anthony Leon (the Blue Devils’ wrestling coach) knew the rings have much more meaning than being a piece of jewelry because of how their athletes and their families will become endeared to them.
“It’s a big honor,” said former Sunnyside wrestling standout Anthony Echemendia, part of the Blue Devils’ 32nd state title team who is an Olympic hopeful in 2020. “It shows how big Sunnyside wrestling is and what Sunnyside is all about. We’re thankful.”
Jesus Barrios, a senior with Sunnyside’s 24-0-2 soccer team last season, said it is “a different type of meaning for a ring. It’s basically a get-together of all the effort you put into it, of all the miles we run, all the effort we had, hitting the weight room, hitting everything, having that persistence that, of you, ‘You know?’This year’s going to be it.’
“We always came with that mentality. We were always ready to win and having something to reward that is going to be very memorable especially in our future days. We’re all going to have the happiness of saying, ‘You know what? I was part of that team. I was part of that family. I was part of that big accomplishment.'”
Barrios, embarking on his goal at Pima College to eventually be an engineering student at Arizona, said he will wear his ring for now but in the long run he will use it as a symbol to motivate young athletes in the future.
“I think we should stay in the community and participate and hopefully in the future when I have my kids probably tell them, ‘You know what? I was part of that team.’ And also show them, inspire them to get into sports and be active. It gives you a lot of education, not in classrooms, but more with your coach and your family and have a lot of good friendships out of it.”
When Leon was given the microphone at the board meeting, he addressed Schmidt, Sethi and Akmajian and touched on the importance of their community involvement and what that means for his wrestlers.
“I want to mention to all the young people in here that when you talk about, especially with my guys, you talk about pillars of success. Reaching the pinnacle is great, but ultimately, the last pillar of success is coming back to where you come from, your community and doing something like this, a generous act, paying it forward and giving it back and I really appreciate it,” Leon said.
“Hopefully you guys can learn (looking at his wrestlers) what community is all about from the Schmidt law firm.”
O’Brien added that getting the rings would have been a “burden” if Schmidt, Sethi and Akmajian did not “step up.” Sunnyside tried to offset the cost to families, Gastelum mentioned.
“You guys showed the true sense of community of giving us something that we will never forget and we will treasure,” O’Brien told the law firm representatives. “I mean, not just the ring … it’s an experience. Every time they look at this, these kids are going to smile. Every time these kids see this they are going to think about all the other kids that they went through this with and the family they went through it with and the family we created on this team.
“It means a lot more than something that just sits on our fingers, sits on our neck, every time we see it, it means much more than that. Without you guys we might not even have that experience or that opportunity.”
Sunnyside senior C.J. Vasquez said of his ring that he will “definitely wear it for the rest of my life.”
“I want to show my kids that I was able to do it, and they’ll be able to do it as well if they put their minds to it and they do what they’re supposed to do in the classroom and on the field,” he said.
Schmidt is a strong advocate of youth sports in the Tucson area, because of the “tremendous benefits” of the athletes making themselves, their families and the community “very proud,” he said at the board meeting.
“We are especially honored to have to opportunity to make sure you all have the opportunity to get rings because the rings provide a real important function,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a nice reward to have to show off to your friends or relatives, but the rings are really important far beyond that.
“You’ll always have them. You’ll always have them as a reminder of what it took to accomplish something that so few people have an opportunity to accomplish. … I truly believe that kids learn in sports that they can’t learn any where else — the classroom or anywhere else. You learn things like leadership and teamwork. You learn how to win and how to lose with dignity. I think most important and what I hope these rings will do for you guys is that through your life it will be a reminder to you that you can actually accomplish things above and beyond what you ever thought you could if you really put in the work and you’re true to the character that’s necessary to be a champion.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.