Tim McLaughlin was playing hooky from work on the day that his life changed.
On an overcast February day last year, he decided to tag along with his wife, Liz, on a bus tour of some Oklahoma City schools. The tour was being led by the Wes Welker Foundation, which wanted to expose donors to what they'd done and what they still wanted to do. The McLaughlins knew the NFL wide receiver from his time at Heritage Hall, where their three kids go to school.
Tim figured the tour was a good excuse to get out of the office.
“I thought it would be a much better option than going to work,” he said. “I thought it would be a lot more fun.”
But after a few hours, he wasn't having any fun.
Tim saw athletic facilities in complete disrepair and fields that couldn't even be used — and it made him angry.
He decided something had to be done.
“A lot of people say they want to do good things,” Oklahoma City Public Schools athletic director Keith Sinor said, “but he actually does good things.”
What grew out of that day is Fields & Futures, a nonprofit organization that has already helped fund the overhaul of six fields in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district. It has a goal of fixing a total of 44, then establishing a multimillion dollar endowment that will provide for upkeep and repair. The hope is improving the fields will increase the number of kids playing sports and that more of them will reap the benefits of athletics.
Fewer behavioral problems.
Tim McLaughlin had seen the positive impact of sports in his own kids and in kids on their teams.
“You see how sports is important to kids,” he said. “It's one of the greatest motivators that we've got.”
So, what motivates him? Why start Fields & Futures to benefit schools to which he has no ties? Why throw himself behind a project that seems so far removed his life?
It's the unique convergence of all the things that matter most to him.
Tim McLaughlin lives in a sprawling house on the extreme northwest corner of Oklahoma City. Built on a lake, it has a pool and a driving range and a putting green and a soccer field.
Yes, a soccer field.
(Tim is the lead investor in the efforts to bring a North American Soccer League team to Oklahoma City.)
His father, David, started Advance Food in the 70s, and the food production company grew from a few employees at one facility to thousands of employees at several locations in Oklahoma and Iowa. Meat became their specialty. Breaded meat. Precooked hamburger patties. Philly steaks.
Tim became vice president of corporate accounts, and those accounts were big.
In 2008, the company's total sales reached $500 million.
A couple years later, the McLaughlin family sold its majority share in Advance and merged with Pierre Foods.
Turning over control of the company changed Tim's workload. He had more time for family activities, including his kids' sports which kept them busy during the school year, then took them all over the country during the summer. But Tim still found himself with extra time on his hands.
“I was kind of lookin'” for a new project, he said.
His family had always been civic-minded, especially his mother, Jean.
“She was everywhere doing stuff,” Tim said. “Always the first to raise her hand.”
And when he went on that tour with the Welker Foundation, he realized it was his turn to raise his hand. He loved the forward momentum in Oklahoma City, powered largely by MAPS, but the tour opened his eyes to the fact that the capital improvement program hadn't fixed everything. It provided Oklahoma City Public Schools with funds to improve buildings but left the fields largely untouched.
Tim oversaw the construction and maintenance of that soccer pitch at his house, so he knew a thing or two about building fields.
“I can help with this,” he thought that day on the tour.
Sinor, the district A.D., met with the tour group, and Tim took one of his business cards.
“I didn't expect to hear from him,” Sinor admitted.
He figured Tim would be like lots of folks — see a problem and feel the need to do something but lack the follow through — but Sinor got a call from Tim within 24 hours.
Tim wanted to know about Sinor's plans. Sinor had been the district A.D. for less than a year, having left Deer Creek where he was the high school principal to take over sports in the district where he grew up and started his career in education. He had a grand master plan to bolster athletics in the district. Renovate all of the fields at the high schools and middle schools. Provide mentors for every coach and athlete in the district.
Tim sat in awe as Sinor laid out his plan.
“You're going to need a lot of help,” Tim told him. “Who's behind you on this?”
Sinor assured him that the superintendent and school board were behind him. After Tim met with them and was sure of their support, he started to devise a plan.
Once Liz gave her blessing, Tim went back to Sinor.
“Man, you need a booster club,” Tim said, “and I'd like to self-appoint myself as the president of your club.”
Fields & Futures was born.
First up was Jefferson Middle School.
Tim knew it well. The largest middle school in the district was the last stop on that Welker Foundation bus tour, and Tim vividly remembers going outside to the fields.
“Well,” someone said, “here are the fields.”
“Where?” Tim asked.
“You're standing on it.”
Tim looked down and saw broken glass and cracked earth. A drainage ditch ran through the baseball field, which had no fence, only a rusty backstop. The football field had no goal posts. No yardage markers. No bleachers of any kind.
Jefferson hadn't hosted a home game in years.
It was an obvious place to start renovating fields.
“Let's build it,” Tim said. “See if they come.”
If it worked, Tim would have something to sell. Having spent his life in sales, he knew that having a story that would sell was important.
So, Tim started to put together a team to get the job done. The school district kicked in $60,000 for fencing. The Welker Foundation donated $25,000 for new equipment. Cimarron Construction and Tim's good friend, Tommy Noble, provided grounds work and other services at cost or free. Others donated money or bought signs or planted trees.
Last fall, the new football, baseball and softball fields were dedicated at Jefferson.
This fall, Tim got a call from one of the football coaches there.
“Tim,” he said, “I've got a problem.”
“What is it?” Tim asked.
His mind raced, fearing the worst.
“Well, I'm out of butt pads and knee pads and shin pads and hip pads,” the coach said. “I've got so many kids.”
Jefferson had about two dozen football players the first time Tim was there with the Welker tour. Last fall, it almost doubled that number. This fall, it had more than 60 players when the season started.
Recently, Tim was at Jefferson with Sinor shooting a video for the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools. As they sat near the office, a teacher hustled by until she saw them. She changed direction and started coming toward them.
“I want to tell you guys something,” she said.
Again, Tim feared the worst.
“This place has changed,” she said.
And she started telling them how the football team had played for the all-city title, how the softball team had won the all-city title and how the baseball team was going to be really good.
Tim could hear the pride in her voice.
“She's a teacher. She's a leader,” Tim said. “Is that rolling downhill?”
He grinned knowingly, his blue eyes dancing.
Things like that have energized Tim more. Fixing all of these fields, many of which have been neglected for years, is a daunting task. Like eating an elephant. But that hasn't stopped Tim from taking a bite.
“He is such a motivated person,” said Stacy McDaniel, whose nonprofit Oklahoma Cleats for Kids now partners with Fields & Futures to provide shoes and equipment to kids in need. “His ability to have some vision about how to make this happen is really what has gotten the wheels turning.”
Wearing designer sunglasses and a mile-wide smile, Tim McLaughlin stood between the baseball and football fields at Webster Middle School on Sunday afternoon.
Kids of all ages played on both fields plus the nearby baseball field.
This is Fields & Futures latest triumph.
“It's just a total overhaul,” Sinor said.
He would know. He once taught and coached at the school in south OKC, and he remembers the football field looking like a pasture. The team had to find a patch of grass to practice on.
Games? There was no way the team could play there.
Now, Sinor can envision a day when the football team has a home game the same time the softball team is playing. Or the baseball team is playing while the soccer team has a game. Or the Police Athletic League uses the fields for a weekend camp.
He can't wait to see what happens there and all around the district with these new fields.
But he knows as grand as his vision is, it wouldn't be where it is without Fields & Futures.
“If everybody had a booster club like Tim, this would be a vastly different place,” Sinor said. “He is an awesome guy.”
A little later during the formal dedication of the fields in the type of neighborhood that Tim used to visit rarely but now considers his calling, he stepped to the podium and looked around at the crowd. Parents. Teachers. Kids. Lots and lots of kids.
“I want to be the first one to say, ‘Welcome to the home of the Warriors,'” Tim said.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
“Sounds good, doesn't it?”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Fields & Futures has numerous ways to help in its mission of renovating athletic fields in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, including cash donations, corporate sponsorships and other partnering opportunities. Mentors and sponsors are also needed for coach and player development programs.
Want more information?
Go to FieldsandFutures.com or email Dot Rhyne at email@example.com.