With a room of 300 hanging on his every word, Chris Del Conte choked up two minutes into his talk Friday.
The Texas athletic director wasn’t discussing the football budget for one of the most successful athletic departments in the country or fielding questions about whether the Longhorns will win the conference title in their final year in the Big 12. He was touting something far more important than sports: the importance of giving back.
Del Conte was raised by parents who believed in community and serving the needs of the less fortunate. The late Robert Del Conte always preached three rules of life: humility, honesty and service. To that end, his oldest son was the perfect choice to speak at Friday’s Great Futures Spring Luncheon, held at the Four Seasons, to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area.
Del Conte spent his childhood afternoons in after-school programs. His parents worked, and the club in Taos, N.M., provided a great outlet to learn and grow in a positive, encouraging environment, run by people who mirrored his parents’ values.
“You never know who is going to make an impact in your life,” Del Conte said. “When you’re doing something special … ”
It was there that Del Conte paused, his voice cracking with emotion, before he regained his composure.
“I was so touched by that staff and the people who would come in and say, ‘Hey, you can be something.’”
An important early lesson: People should help people
Back in the late 1960s, Robert and Michele Del Conte converted a ranch of nearly 150 acres that was 20 minutes outside of town into a group home for children from underprivileged backgrounds. Neglected, abused and largely discarded by many in society, they came in all shapes, sizes and colors, with a shared desire to improve their lot in life.
The Del Conte ranch housed more than 80 kids most years. The foster kids lived shoulder to shoulder with the three Del Conte kids, whose father never made $30,000 in a year. But through his and Michele’s tireless efforts — whether it was tightening his spending belt or petitioning local companies and individuals for donations — he made sure every kid under his roof had five changes of clothes and new shoes by the time the school year was starting.
It was through their example that young Chris realized the value of people helping people.
“Those afternoons at the club were crucial,” he said. “Not just playing pool and pingpong, but the longer you were around the other kids, they looked similar. And the conversations were similar. Those things were such a big, impactful thing.”
Real heroes are out there, doing great things
Of course, the local clubs in our cities can’t exist without the time from the passionate staff and the generosity of donors who help fund services that support 4.6 million children ages 6 to 18. As Texas’ athletic director, Del Conte is in the fundraising business, and while his job is to keep a multimillion-dollar athletic program thriving, his process is similar to what the BGCAA is doing.
It’s nice to see people like him and former Texas players Quan Cosby, Jamaal Charles and Stevie Lee — they were all present Friday as well — giving their time to support a worthy cause. Jamaal and Whitney Charles serve on the Austin board, and Lee’s wife, Summer, is involved as well.
“There are kids out there who need mentorship and leadership to just get a head start in life,” said Stevie Lee, an Austin real estate agent. “They really do, and what (Del Conte) has shared … I did not know that he was a Boys & Girls Club kid. Watching him share that today … I’ve never seen the guy get choked up like that.”
While Lee and athletes like him were able to pair their talents with hard work to carve out a positive college experience in sports, they make up only 2% of the student population.
“We have 10,000 first-generation kids at the University of Texas and 5,000 Pell Grant kids and need-based,” Del Conte said. “So think through what happens through the Boys & Girls Clubs when they can dream of something that they don’t think is attainable. I was very fortunate that people poured into me.”
People like a former worker at the ranch who put in a word for Del Conte with Washington State after he’d graduated from UC-Santa Barbara, where he ran track. It was a maintenance gig that paid only $18,000 a year, but he paired his four years of mowing the grounds and painting fences in Pullman into a master’s degree. That one phone call from a mentor set him on the path to becoming arguably the best athletic director in the country.
Like Del Conte, Wendy Rodriguez gets it. Long before she became an associate at the Bingham Group, she was a Boys & Girls Club kid from Austin, spending her days from the sixth to 12th grade at the Boys & Girls Club. She was the 2017 Club Youth of the Year, and the 2020 Texas graduate is a product of what beautiful things can grow out of a positive childhood experience at the Boys & Girls Club.
“The club was my home away from home and gave me so many opportunities, resources and connections that I continue to cherish to this day,” Rodriguez said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the Boys & Girls Club.”
Giving back, being in the present
When Charles retired after a successful NFL career and moved his family to Austin, he believed it would be a great idea to get involved with the organization on a local level. The club and Charles’ foundation are sponsoring a June 9 football event at the Ed Bluestein location that will feature Charles and other familiar Longhorn names — including football legends Derrick Johnson and Brian Orakpo — conducting a camp for club members.
As a Boys & Girls Club kid growing up in Port Arthur, Charles never forgot the life lessons that club counselors and mentors instilled in him as he battled a learning disability while being the son of a single mother. When his beloved grandmother Mazelle passed away when he was 8 years old, Charles bounced between his mom’s house and an aunt’s.
The club provided some structure through a period of uncertainty. He would see volunteers visit the club and give their time, seemingly for no reason.
“I grew up with basically not anybody being there,” Charles said. “And then you would see people coming up to the club and ask yourself, ‘I wonder what they do?’ And then you would aspire to be like them.”
Charles said being around young people never ceases to warm his heart when he’s visiting a club. He and development director Paul Turner II laughed about Turner testing his hoops skills against club kids.
“It’s not always about material things,” Charles said. “It’s about spending your time, being here for the kids and seeing the smiles on their faces. Being able to be there in the present means so much more.”
As long as there are kids who need a place to go after school, the Boys & Girls Clubs will have a purpose.
Del Conte, Rodriguez and Charles are living proof.