Dramatics are usually reserved for the final moments of basketball games, but on Jan. 26 at Highland Park High School, emotions peaked before tipoff.
Prior to a conference matchup between Highland Park and Maine West, the Giants community honored decorated Army veteran Shawn Hoffmann and his family with the presentation of more than $6,000 in cash and gifts.
The ceremony capped HPHS’s participation in the Free Throws for Heroes program, for which the school’s boys basketball players raised funds by encouraging pledges based on how many free throws they each could make out of 50. The town’s junior high players also contributed to the $6,000 fund.
“I’m incredibly proud of our guys and proud to have been able to in some small way support such an important and worthy cause and recipient,” said Ross Deutsch, HPHS’s varsity basketball coach, who kickstarted the festivities on Jan. 26 by telling the impressive senior-night crowd about the program and about Hoffmann.
Hoffmann and his four children joined Deutsch at center court and showed various forms of joy and surprise as Deutsch announced the gifts: several Lego sets for Hoffmann’s Lego-loving daughter; four Apple iPads — one for each child; two $250 gift cards to Jewel grocery store; and a check for $5,000.
The Hoffmanns remained on the court as the crowd collaborated for a lengthy ovation, and an emotional Shawn Hoffmann waved, expressing his gratitude before striding back to the bleachers.
“I’m extremely grateful for everything that’s happening,” he said following the ceremony. “I don’t expect anything as much as that. I’m just lost for words.”
A Niles North High school graduate, Hoffmann actively served in the U.S. Army as a mechanic for nearly 11 years. His service brought him overseas for two tours in the early 2000s.
More recently life had presented challenges to Hoffmann and his family. Following a divorce, the single father of four was working to make ends meet. As a past American Legion commander, Hoffmann spent plenty of time helping his fellow military veterans. He thought it best to take his own advice and get some help.
“I always tried to let other veterans know that resources are out there,” he said. “We just have to dig deep and let go of some of that pride to see what’s out there and get some help. It was just my turn.”
Hoffmann said the Veterans Assistance Commission helped house his family while they searched for a new residence. Because he did seek help, Hoffmann eventually was hooked up with Free Throws for Heroes.
The Hoffmanns recently found a three-bedroom home on the Great Lakes Naval Base. Going from a five-bedroom home to a three-bedroom has presented more challenges. Hoffmann, for instance, sleeps in the living room to give his children more space, and with the contributions from HPHS basketball, he said he will buy desks and chairs to get more work, and homework, done at home, as well as a grill and “stuff the kids needs — and they’re going to need clothes.”
Mitch Saltzstein, of Northbrook, founded The Charity Stripe in 2009 to support individuals facing hardships following, among other things, military service. The organization organizes and oversees group fundraising activities, such as Free Throws for Heroes.
Highland Park High School basketball has been a regular participant in the program, which specifically benefits military veterans and their families.
Deutsch, the Giants head coach, said charity is a vital part of HPHS basketball, something he picked up from his years coaching under Paul Harris, now the school’s athletic director, and continues preaching to this day.
“We’re constantly telling them that we’re part of something bigger in the Highland Park basketball community,” he said. “I think this teaches our guys the importance of giving back and being part of something bigger than basketball.”
When Deutsch read details of this year’s recipient, Shawn Hoffmann, to his players, he cried. At the time, the players were sitting in desks following a basketball game, and in the letter Deutsch was reading, Hoffmann wrote that he wanted to purchase a desk so he could work from to help care for his children.
Deutsch said his players were enthused at the opportunity and that trickled down to the lower levels of HP basketball.
“We take some things for granted like that,” Deutsch said. “The fact that our efforts, along with our feeder players, were enough to purchase four iPads, lego sets, gift cards and the remaining funds — I’m really honored to be able to in some small way help a deserving needy father and family.”
“We’re very, very lucky that we have so many supportive parents,” he added.
Mimicking its start, the evening ended in home-crowd cheers with the Giants defeating the Warriors.
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