Suffolk Athletics Transformed by Alumni Philanthropy

Athletics at Suffolk University have come a long way since the early 1960s. Just ask one who was there: Athletics Director Emeritus Jim Nelson. He will tell you that Rams basketball practice would take place not at Suffolk, but across the river at the Cambridge YMCA.
“We had to change with the general membership down there,” Nelson recalls. “Sometimes Charlie [Law] and myself would be giving a pep talk, and some fellah would say, ‘Be quiet over there!’ There were no lockers, and you had just one towel. There were radiators up above, and you put your one towel on the radiator for the next day. By the end of the week that towel was like sandpaper.”

Suffolk student-athletes of that era clearly did not play for glamour. They played for the love of the game. And they played to build a sense of pride in their university community.

Over the years, that Suffolk community has grown and thrived, thanks in large part to the philanthropy of alumni like Michael and Larry Smith, whose donations have funded new team uniforms as well as a refurbished basketball court and new bleachers in the Ridgeway Building. Most recently, their support has empowered the University to undertake major renovations to the Ridgeway Building’s athletics facilities, including a new team room, training room, weight room, and locker rooms.

This support continues to transform Suffolk in myriad ways both direct and indirect.

“We were able to add six new intercollegiate sports, full-time coaches, and also move into the Commonwealth Conference, which has really made us a player in New England,” says Athletic Director Cary McConnell. The number of student-athletes at Suffolk, he goes on to note, has increased in recent years by 150 to around 300.

Suffolk’s new teams have raised the University’s profile in ways that allow recruitment of student-athletes from far outside the Boston area. On the women’s ice hockey team, he notes, “we have four skaters from Canada, Wisconsin, Michigan. These are students who would not have come to the University if we weren’t able to offer women’s ice hockey at a high level.”

Such reliable support enables new levels of excellence for individual student-athletes as well. This year, senior Emily Manfra, a standout runner on the Rams cross country and track and field teams, became the first All-American and Academic All-American in University history.

“I’ve loved being able to make my family and the Suffolk community proud,” Emily says. And she is grateful for the alumni generosity that helped to bring track and field to Suffolk and sponsored the University’s first team bus.

“It sounds small, but being able to have a team bus has made a huge improvement in morale,” she points out.

Intangibles like pride and morale do not always receive the same attention as a building dedication, and certainly cannot be quantified on a balance sheet. Yet they are the glue that holds a community together and allows it to reach new heights. And, crucially, they enable a virtuous cycle: the pride that alumni donors feel for their alma mater ultimately inspires the pride of a new generation of students and alumni. Those who compete on Suffolk Rams teams, who cheer those teams on, and who seize the opportunities provided to them through philanthropy today, will remember Suffolk tomorrow—and be moved to give back.

“Athletics foster leadership, collaboration, and community for all of the students involved,” observes President Marisa Kelly. By investing in athletics at Suffolk, she says, donors help to “ensure that we can expand our programs, expand the number of students who have access to Suffolk athletics, and ensure that our teams and our student athletes are supported in the ways they deserve to be.”