Community rallies to boost Stampeders

Former professional football player and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker poses for a photo with Buffalo Stampeders Youth Sports Club board members and their spouses during Saturday evening’s Buffalo Stampeders Sportsman Gala at the Brownwood Hotel & Spa.

A historic step toward supporting area athletes took place Saturday night in The Villages. The second annual Buffalo Stampeders Sportsman Gala raised more than $700,000 inside the Brownwood Hotel & Spa, where Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and dozens of local business representatives gathered to support the Buffalo Stampeders Youth Sports Club. A total of $528,390 was collected via two auctions — surpassing the $425,000 raised at the inaugural event last July — with additional sponsorships benefitting the seven-sport program pushing the total past $700,000. “If it wasn’t for this community and their support on a night like this, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” said Josh Yoder, president of the Buffalo Stampeders Youth Sports Club. “This allows us to hire great coaches, purchase and refurbish equipment, and help keep costs down for our athletes and their families.

“These kind of events just don’t happen in most communities and we’re fortunate to be in one that cares about giving back to its kids.”

Walker, a 1980 national champion at the University of Georgia and the 1982 Heisman Trophy recipient, delivered the event’s keynote address. Heralded for a running style that was equally powerful as it was fast, Walker was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

“It’s great to see how this community gets behind its youth sports,” Walker said. “What they’re doing here in The Villages is so important. I believe that’s a main reason why this community has grown and will continue to grow, because of the great and supportive people here.”

Walker’s speech highlighted many trials and tribulations throughout his upbringing in rural Wrightsville, Georgia, before he played his way into his No. 34 being retired at the University of Georgia. Walker went on to enjoy a 12-year NFL career and also compete on the 1992 U.S. Olympic bobsled team, before starting a food distribution company following his retirement.

“It was important for me to be here because it gives me an opportunity to tell people you’re going to get knocked down, but you have to get up,” Walker said. “I wanted a chance to tell all these young athletes to continue to fight, continue to have faith and continue to be resilient.”

Colt McDowell, head coach of The Villages High School boys basketball team and Buffalo Stampeders director, said Walker’s story is one that he will share with his own athletes time and time again.

“Three things really jump out to you with (Walker) and that’s perseverance, hard work and faith,” McDowell said. “Those are three things that can help carry any athlete or person to whatever levels of success they want to achieve.”

Nearly 50 silent auction items and another two dozen live auction pieces went to the highest bidders at the event, with items ranging from autographed sports memorabilia to vacation experiences and home services. The event was sponsored by more than 30 area businesses, who also enjoyed a meet-and-greet opportunity with Walker and a catered dinner.

The Buffalo Stampeders Youth Sports Club is open to all area children in grades K-8, with year-round instruction and competitive play offered in baseball, basketball, football and cheer, golf, swimming, volleyball and wrestling.

“Without the community’s support, we’re not able to fund the programs we have,” McDowell said. “Because of them, we’re able to provide high-level coaching and training, provide new equipment and make sure we’re offering all of that at an affordable cost to parents. That makes this a really special night to have everyone together and helping accomplish that mission.”

Senior writer Cody Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5286, or