Parental Perspective: GatorMade provides life-altering experiences for Florida football student-athletes

Parental Perspective

by Inside the Gators Staff

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When Billy Napier first took the helm of the Florida Gators football program, he prioritized his players’ lives not only on the field but beyond it.

Part of that plan included creating the GatorMade program, which is described as “a holistic player-focused and purpose-driven initiative” with a similar mission: developing Gators far beyond the football field and providing them with the necessary skills to succeed in life.”

The program is run by Savannah Bailey, a Napier hire who was previously the Director of Life Skills and Community Service for Clemson’s P.A.W. Journey program. Along with Marcus Castro-Walker, director of player engagement and NIL, the GatorMade program teaches the players a variety of skills outside the field of play.

UF football players learn financial literacy, make career connections outside the sport and participate in service trips and experiences both home and abroad. Recently, GatorMade took 13 football players to South Africa as part of the program’s second service abroad trip.

“The thing that’s beautiful about the program is that they pick different players at different times to go and do some of these activities that are part of this GatorMade program, and Savannah Bailey does a great job at it,” said Chris Pelic, father of graduate linebacker Justin Pelic.

During the trip, the players helped build infrastructure such as water tanks and a self-sustaining vegetable garden at the Rise Above Development Youth Centre (RAD) in Lavender Hill, a gang-prevalent area located in the Western Cape region of Cape Town.

RAD is in the process of building the youth center, which will have a “music studio, computer lab, library, internet cafe, outdoor theatre, and sports facilities,” according to the organization’s website.

The trip was an eye-opener for the players in attendance. Not only did the experience provide many of them with the opportunity to leave the United States for the first time, but it also gave them opportunities to serve a community in need while connecting with the development’s children.

“It’s a poverty-stricken area. Jaydon’s never experienced anything like that. That was an eye-opener for him,” said Kimberly Hill-Ingram, mother of Gators’ senior defensive back Jaydon Hill.

After spending time at the center building water tanks, the players went back to spend time with the children. They played a variety of games including tug-of-war and soccer, and the team went back later in the week to surprise the kids with gifts for the center.

“[The kids] can be infectious with their joy with having so little and still being so thankful,” said Ebony Robinson-Mizell, mother of freshman wide receiver Aidan Mizell. “Our kids in America can be spoiled. So, when you see kids getting excited about small, intimate things that wouldn’t necessarily have the same effect on an American kid or teenager, it was just really cool to see his effect on the kids, just wanting to spend time with them.”

“The most exciting part for [Jaydon], I think, was being able to bond with the children over there,” Hill-Ingram said. “He would send us videos of things of that sort. And just learning about the culture over there.”

A massive part of the player’s experience was seeing one of the most dangerous parts of the world for their own eyes.

In fact, Cape Town was ranked 11th in the Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice’s ranking of the world’s 50 most violent cities last year. Additionally, Cape Town had the most overall murders on the list (2,911) and had a murder rate of 62 per 100,000 people.

Lavender Hill is no exception to the gang presence, and the players got to see it firsthand.

“[Aidan] made it seem like it was very open and obvious,” Robinson-Mizell said. “There was no hiding what they were doing. They just kind of operated, not really caring whether the police were there or not.”

Despite that, the players were able to provide great services to a community in need and made memories they’ll never forget.

Pelic explained that his son as well as most of the players said they weren’t ready to leave and would’ve stayed long had they had the opportunity. The eye-opening experience allowed the players to see the world beyond their previous experiences, connect and help an area in need, and even bond with each other.

“We’re privileged with so many things here. And there are a lot of folks there in not-so-great conditions,” Pelic said. “I think it was eye-opening for Justin to see that aspect of the world.”

Outside of the service side of the trip, the players continued to bond with each other during the trip’s downtime. They trekked up Table Mountain, participated in an immersive music experience, and even went on a safari tour, which was a favorite amongst the players.

“It’s been a great program for them in that this gave him an opportunity to get outside the field,” Hill-Ingram said. “That’s what he had mentioned about this trip, helping him get outside of the box and see other things.”

The trip to South Africa was just one of the many opportunities players have experienced in the year-and-a-half GatorMade has been in existence. The players consistently volunteer at Gainesville-area food banks and schools. Additionally, they’ve taken trips to the Nike headquarters, to New York City for a dozen corporate visits, and spent the 2022 spring break in Atlanta for professional networking.

Overall, GatorMade experience has been valuable for the players, whether it be fifth-year scholarship players like Hill, graduate walk-ons like Pelic or early enrollee true freshmen like Mizell.

“I do think one of the cool things when you get involved early is you start developing those interpersonal skills and being able to promote yourself,” Robinson-Mizell said. “I think that’ll aid him in making those connections and networking in the future.”

Through the GatorMade program, the players have learned financial literacy, which the parents note is critical in the age of Name, Image, and Likeness.

“I’m glad that Coach Napier has this in place for them because they really need it,” Hill-Ingram said. “Especially with NIL being so new. They get a lot of education.”

In the business world, GatorMade has been able to put players in positions to find job opportunities locally or abroad, even if their playing careers are far from over.

Pelic explained that his son, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Management, plans to stay at Florida with two years of playing eligibility left. He’ll pursue a career in medicine.

Not only did GatorMade help reinforce leadership, service, and communication skills needed in his field, it also helped him make connections with local businesses, where he eventually ended up taking an internship.

“When you hear GatorMade,’ while there are these individual activities, it’s also a culture,” Pelic said, “and I think the kids think of it that way.”

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  1. The problem with this and the collective pictures and videos they put out is half of those players don't even play.

    Why are they making money and getting these great trips before they prove it on the field.

    They had Wingo and the offensive lineman who's never played down at NASA.

    Let starters go on trips like that.
  2. How do they decide who gets to go on the trips?
    I have no idea what the criteria is.

    I promise you, if someone's going overseas though, they have absolute trust that that player knows how to behave.

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