North By Northwest: Pagnozzi Charities Levels the Playing Field
By Beth Hall, Veronica Mobley and Amber Morrison
He was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals for 12 years. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1992. He earned three Rawlings Gold Glove awards in a four-year span. Now, retired in northwest Arkansas, Tom Pagnozzi wants to make sure every child has the opportunity he had to build a passion for sports.
Formally created as a 501c3 in 1999, the mission of Pagnozzi Charities Youth Sports Scholarship Program is to open the door of athletic experience to disadvantaged youth. The goal is to advance the well being of youth by giving them the same opportunity as their peers and introducing them to positive life experiences.
“I was lucky. I never missed anything because of money, and I can’t imagine not playing because I couldn’t afford it,” Pagnozzi said. “It’s changed a lot with travel teams and competitive teams and lessons; it’s gotten so crazy that a kid who doesn’t have the disposable dollars is left behind because he can’t afford to go get that stuff. We give them an avenue to continue playing.”
Scholarships are awarded to students who meet specific government criteria and fill out an application on the Pagnozzi Charities website. These are also available through many of the area leagues. The funds are provided through personal contributions and fundraising efforts throughout the year including a fishing tournament; casino-style celebration; the premiere Tom Pagnozzi golf tournament; and Get Out and Play Corporate Games, which are being held June 22 at the Benton County Fairgrounds. This third annual corporate games “tournament” places corporations head-to-head in events, such as kickball; volleyball; touch football; horseshoes; ladder golf; egg spoon relays; potato sack races; and a final obstacle course.
“The Olympic-style event brings companies together as a team building exercise,” Pagnozzi said. “This brings awareness to how it similarly can affect kids. Studies show the more kids are active, [the more their self-esteem is built; they learn] team work and they’re more productive.”
The idea for the charity was originally to raise money for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (UAF) baseball program in the early ‘90s. Then head baseball Coach Norm DeBriyan went to Pagnozzi with the idea as a way for “Pags” to give back to the program that launched his professional career.
Pagnozzi was a catcher and third baseman when he transferred to the UAF from Central Arizona prior to the 1983 season. Pagnozzi wanted to be only a catcher, and Coach DeBriyn gave him that chance by making him the starting catcher in the 1983 season. After leading the Hogs with a .362 batting average, 50 RBI and helping Arkansas to a berth in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Tulsa, Okla., Pagnozzi was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth round of the 1983 major league draft.
“Coach DeBriyn called me and asked if I’d put my name on [the charity]. I wasn’t just going to lend my name to it,” Pagnozzi said. “I said, ‘We’re going to run this first class and do it the right way’ and that’s what we did.”
As the UAF baseball funding grew, Pagnozzi and the board members decided to turn the original Razorback Foundation Celebrity Golf Tournament and Auction into the Tom Pagnozzi Charity Golf Tournament and set a new goal for Pagnozzi Charities. In 1999 when they received their 501c3 status, they began to use the funding to help disadvantaged youth throughout Arkansas, providing them with an open door to the same athletic experiences of their peers and following the Pagnozzi motto to “level the playing field.”
“We were all former athletes or we had kids, so we decided to help the kids because we all started somewhere,” Pagnozzi said. “It was real simple. That’s really how we went with the avenue of helping kids who can’t afford to play. We allowed them to play instead of quitting [due to the lack of funds]. There are a lot of kids who would not play without it.”