OTTUMWA — A number of Ottumwa football players dragged themselves out of bed Saturday morning to take part in the Ottumwa Rotary Club's semi-annual highway cleanup.
As they cruised by in their vehicles, drivers could see a mix of rotary members and football players scattered along U.S. Highway 63 from the bridge north of town all the way past the Cedar Creek Golf Course starting at 7 a.m. The boys' involvement in the project is part of a larger effort to establish a good rapport between the community and the football program. Developing a close-knit relationship with the community is one of the initiatives Ottumwa football coach Zach Pfantz has actively pushed since he took over the reins of the football program.
"I think that being proud of where you come from is important and just having pride in community," Pfantz said. "We want to show that we care and help out anyway that we can."
The coach noted the close relationship between the high school and the town.
"I think that's the great thing about high school athletics, we are in this together," Pfantz said. "Our high school and our town are so interconnected."
The football players themselves were keenly aware of their coach's predilection for public service projects and other manifestations of community pride.
"That's kind of his thing," Bulldog Jalen Strunk said about Pfantz, "He just likes us to get involved and help out with the community. It gives us a better look for the community and makes us look better to the little kids who look up to us. It just makes us better role models to them."
Rotary club members were appreciative of the football team's interest in the project.
"I think it's great," Rotarian Lee Johns said. "I think it helps anytime you get the young kids out and get them involved in the community and see that there's a lot more out there that needs to be done. I think it's really good for them."
On their end, the boys seemed to be acutely aware of the importance of what they were doing.
"We're just trying to get out in the community and really trying to help out the town," Bulldog Levi Cobler said.
Ottumwa's Matt Moreland noted that this wasn't the first time the football program has been involved with projects aimed at improving Ottumwa.
"We did another thing earlier this year where we put down bridges in the woods for bike trails," he said. "So I think this is good to give to the community."
That particular project, which took place in March, Pfantz said, also involved constructing a mountain bike path at Memorial Park. Moreland said projects like the clean-up bring everyone on the team closer together and help develop a team feeling amongst the players.
Bob Kramer, who organizes the clean-up for the Rotary, said his organization loves to work with young people on community-enhancing projects.
"They all were here bright and early at 7 a.m. and I didn't hear any complaints," he said, "especially when we feed them. They are very enthusiastic and it just feels great to have young people involved in a community organization like the rotary."
Kramer estimated that about 50 to 60 people took part in the clean-up.
"This is a good way to feel like we're making a contribution to Ottumwa and the environment and we feel like this has been a tremendous project over the years," he said.
The rotary received an award from the Iowa governor's council a few years back for 25 years of cleaning up U.S. Highway 63, Kramer said. Before everyone got to work, they allowed themselves a few minutes to indulge in some doughnuts at the North Hy-Vee. Later, after the clean-up was finished, everyone returned to the Hy-Vee and had breakfast. Ina Cavin, store director at the grocery store, also took part in the clean-up.
Pfantz said the lessons his players glean from these community projects extend onto and beyond the football field.
"Being selfless and being a servant leader is as important Friday [on the football field] as it is when we're out in the community and I hope that's something our players will carry with them for the rest of their lives," the coach said.
The Bulldogs community pride will be on display again May 11 when they take part in paint projects around town.