Peter Mortell didn’t know what to expect walking into St. Joseph’s Home for Children last December, armed with presents a few days before Christmas.
The punter on the University of Minnesota football team only wished to maybe make some young kids smile.
That simple goal — aided by a $452 gift card from Best Buy he had received from the Gophers’ appearance in the Citrus Bowl — grew this year into a more-than-$25,000 fundraising drive to buy presents for teenage patients, present and future, at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
All because of his visit last Christmas season to St. Joseph’s, a Catholic Charities program that provides shelter and other needs for kids in crisis situations.
“I left there wanting to do more,” Mortell said.
He told very few people about that act of kindness. Not his football coaches or his teammates. Not even his parents.
His parents didn’t learn of his good deed until a Google alert popped on their phones. Mortell can’t remember ever seeing his dad cry before that moment, as he read a column in the Star Tribune about his son’s generosity.
Mortell told himself right then that he has been given an opportunity to do more than kick a football in college.
Now a senior, he made good on that promise to himself with this year’s fundraising endeavor, which he termed “A Very Specialist Christmas.” He’s hoping a corporate sponsor will match what he raises.
The idea came to him through letters, e-mails and Facebook messages he received from across the nation in response to last year’s act. People offered to help him if he did something similar this year.
Inspired to help teens
Mortell decided to help teenagers specifically because they often get overlooked in holiday donations and because he has developed a close relationship with cancer survivor Casey O’Brien, whose father, Dan, recently became an assistant coach on Tracy Claeys’ staff after serving in Gophers administration.
Mortell visited Casey countless times at Children’s Hospital. He always made a point to look around and reflect on his own blessings.
“I would see other kids hooked up to tubes and cords,” Mortell said. “I leave there and think, ‘Look at the battles these kids are fighting every day. What right do I have to complain about anything?’ ”
Mortell initially considered $5,000 as this year’s fundraising goal before settling on $10,000. He exceeded that total in 12 hours. So he upped the ante to $25,000.
And people responded. More than 315 have donated, and that number continues to climb.
He received $1,000 apiece from U President Eric Kaler, former football coach Jerry Kill and former football captain Jim Carter.
A man he’s never met donated $5,000. Some gave $5.
Friends, relatives and complete strangers contributed, even some who just learned about Mortell through one of his slapstick ideas.
Along with his kind soul, Mortell is a goofball at heart. He recently tweeted a picture of himself holding on a field-goal attempt, with a caption proclaiming himself “Holder of the Year” and naming the award in his honor.
His tweet went viral, ESPN caught wind and did a segment on it, and suddenly Mortell had 4,000 new Twitter followers. Many of them donated to his cause, too.
The punter is grateful to all.
“It’s truly amazing,” he said.
Mortell’s act embodies the good in sports at a time when it’s fashionable to focus on all of the ills of college athletics — the greed and reckless spending and hypocrisy of amateurism.
Many problems do exist in college sports. But the character and actions of such athletes as Mortell provide a counterbalance to that conversation.
He considers his charitable endeavors an obligation to pay it forward. He hopes other college athletes will follow his lead.
“We need to give back to the community that supports us,” he said.
Mortell is a native of Green Bay, Wis., and a die-hard Packers fan, but he considers the Twin Cities his home, too. He loves this community.
That’s why he plans to keep his fundraising account open through the U children’s hospital. He wants to help pay for birthday parties or other occasions or needs that arise throughout the year.
Mortell hopes to punt in the NFL next year. Yet regardless of his career path, he has found a purpose here.
“If I’m punting in the NFL in Tampa Bay or if I’m working corporate in Maine, I’m going to keep my fund open at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital,” he said. “I’m going to keep that going for a long time.”