CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The University of Virginia football program is the recipient of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Game Changers Award for the 2019-20 academic year, announced the league office on Tuesday (April 7).
The ACC’s Game Changers initiative was introduced in 2015 to recognize and highlight specific conference teams’ involvement with their local communities. Under the watch of current head football coach Bronco Mendenhall, “Thursday’s Heroes” has provided support for 63 young people and their families in the Charlottesville, Va., area since its inception nearly four years ago.
“The impact being made by the Virginia football program through Thursday’s Heroes is inspiring and commendable,” said ACC Commissioner John Swofford. “Watching our institutions give back so profoundly to their communities is especially fulfilling and truly demonstrates the exceptional leadership qualities of our student-athletes.”
Continuing the concept of a program Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, spearheaded at Brigham Young University prior to his arrival at Virginia, Thursday’s Heroes reaches out to individuals who are undergoing a difficult circumstance (medical, physical, cognitive, etc.) and makes them feel a part of the Virginia football family.
“The trophies and the wins and all that – yeah, they’re necessary for job security, and the world makes a big deal of that,” Bronco Mendenhall said. “But it’s hollow without the substance. Relationships are everything. Other than that, it would just be a game, and that doesn’t sound quite meaningful enough to me.”
Each Thursday, a Hero and their family is invited to tour the Cavalier football facilities, watch practice and meet players and coaches. Virginia players take turns showering their Hero with gifts, which may include UVA gear, a signed football, Beats by Dre, a bicycle, school supplies, Halloween costumes, and special video messages from favorite celebrities (Peyton Manning, Kenny Chesney, Odell Beckham Jr. and Hugh Jackman are among past participants).
Players have been known to dress in costume to become the Hero’s favorite character – Captain America, Mr. Incredible, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and even Santa Claus. The goal: to put a smile on each Hero’s face. 
“As a student-athlete, I feel as though so much of our life is devoted to academics and sports,  but our Thursday’s Heroes program has shown me that there is so much more to life than just football and school, (that) there are many people out there fighting battles much bigger than mine,” UVA senior linebacker Reed Kellam said. “Thursday’s Heroes is the best tradition of the UVA football program, and it has changed my life.”
The program started at UVA in the fall of 2016. The initial step involved partnering with Charlottesville community members and hospitals around the state of Virginia. The football team also worked with K-12 schools and teachers to receive Hero nominations.
In order to provide the best experience, football staff are in contact early on with parents/guardians to determine the Hero’s “favorites,” with the goal of making the program’s gifts and presentations unique. Each Hero also signs a flag that represents the team’s core values and beliefs, receives tickets to a home football game and is recognized via a JumboTron video and on-field presentation. Mendenhall and the coaching staff extend a standing invitation for the Hero to visit with the Cavaliers’ football team.
Players and coaches from other UVA athletic teams often join the football program in celebrating and gifting Thursday’s Heroes.
“Everything (they) do is touching and changing somebody’s life,” said Michelle Wright, the mother of a Thursday’s Hero. “It could be big or small, but it’s a difference – a positive difference.” 
Last year, the ACC’s Game Changers Award was presented to Georgia Tech for its efforts to build partnerships with communities outside of local Atlanta and extend the reach of the university’s athletic program via “Jackets Without Borders.” In 2017-18, Clemson Athletics was recognized for its work with students with cognitive and/or physical development disabilities who desire a postsecondary experience on a college campus. 
Other previous award winners included the 2016-17 Wake Forest field hockey, track & field and cross country teams for their work in battling hunger in their North Carolina community, the 2016 University of Louisville men’s soccer team for teaming up with their city’s special needs community to host soccer clinics and to celebrate life, and the 2015 Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team for its ongoing partnership with the Dickinson Fine Arts Academy.