Kevin Schneider walked into the Northwestern University athletic offices with the entire purple-clad staff singing him Happy Birthday. He blew out a single candle in an ice cream sandwich, and a smile spread across his face as everyone in the room clapped. Compliance Director Maureen Harty gave Kevin an Under Armour jacket -- Northwestern switched to Under Armour uniforms this season, and Kevin couldn't be left out. But the jacket wasn't Kevin's only present.
Two months ago, associate director of athletic communications Doug Meffley set out to show Kevin how much Northwestern appreciated his being one of the school's biggest fans. Kevin started collecting team schedule cards in 1990. Every time a Northwestern team left for a road game, Kevin would ask the staff to bring him back schedule cards from all teams in the area. Because of time and travel constraints, it wasn't always easy to get a card for Kevin.
After one of Meffley's friends supplied a bunch, he decided to launch a Schedule Cards for Kevin campaign. As part of the birthday celebration, the Northwestern athletic department presented Kevin with all the gifts sent in from perfect strangers.
"Are we going to get to a hundred?" Harty asked before Kevin started checking out all the cards.
Kevin answered with his ever-present smile, "Maybe."
Kevin is a 36-year-old Evanston resident with a developmental disability. He graduated from the local high school and has worked at the grocery store just north of Northwestern's athletic facilities for 17 years. Kevin is active in the Evanston and Chicago communities, especially with the Center for Independent Futures that helps adults with disabilities and their families plan, support and sustain a full life. Despite keeping a busy schedule, Kevin manages to attend roughly 50 or 60 Northwestern athletic events each year.
"It's easy for him here. It's all about sports, and he knows that topic inside out," said Kevin's father Marc Schneider (on right in photo below). "He's a very social being but he's a little awkward in how to go about doing social things. He's very comfortable talking about sports, and he has connected so much with the people here."
Meffley has been a part of the Northwestern athletics department for a decade, first as a work-study student, then as an intern after graduation and now as the associate director of digital communications and social media. In all those years, Meffley said he doesn't remember a time when Kevin wasn't walking around the office spouting kickoff times or pitching matchups.
"Somewhere along the line, he just became part of the fabric around here," Meffley said. "I don't know a Northwestern that Kevin wasn't a part of. That's pretty special."
Two of Kevin's favorite sports to watch are lacrosse and softball. He can often be seen sticking his head in the dugout at a softball game if things aren't going well.
"He's not shy about sharing his opinions. If he thinks the pitcher should pitch more strikes, he'll tell you that," Meffley said. "The players appreciate that honesty, and Kevin is always the first to congratulate them at the end and high five them as they come off the field."
Emily Allard, senior shortstop on the softball team, has gotten to know Kevin very well. Her friendship with Kevin extends past the softball field. Every time she stops by the grocery store where Kevin works, Allard said she looks to say hi to him. One day she stopped in for a sandwich, and while walking to the register to pay, she said she heard Kevin call out to a random customer at the checkout asking if he was going to the men's basketball game that night.
"All of a sudden from a distance I hear, 'It starts at 7! What about you? It's so close, right at Welsh-Ryan! Drew's going to have a great game tonight!'" Allard said. "For a solid three minutes, you would have thought the NU marketing department hired Kevin to promote their basketball game that night. But no, it was just Kevin in all his knowledge of NU sports, genuinely wondering if anyone in Dominick's was going to the game tonight.
"So of course I smiled, and in front of everyone, said, 'I'll see you there, Kevin!' He smiled at me and as I walked out of the store behind me I heard, 'Hey, that's Emily Allard!'"
From his 10 years in the athletic department, Meffley also has a special friendship with Kevin, who has memorized all the athletic staff's favorite teams and reminds people of key matchups. Meffley is a big San Francisco Giants fan, and before a four-game series between the Giants and the Cubs, Kevin stopped by Meffley's office to brief him on the details of the games.
"Without even a hello, he rattled off what time all four games were, what channel all four games were on and who was pitching all four games," Meffley said. "That's when you see past any disability he has. He's an intelligent man, and he channels it into sports.
"I was with him once during March Madness. It was the second round, and I was asking him who this game, who won that game. He knew it, and we weren't looking anything up. The rest of us go right to our phones, but he knows that stuff. He's very intelligent, and he channels that into his passion."
Kevin's passion for sports is infectious and his support of Northwestern athletics immense. Meffley said he wanted to thank Kevin for all of his support by adding to his schedule card collection. First, he reached out to a friend who also collects schedule cards and asked if he had anything to spare.
"I sent about 40 to 50 schedules, mostly from football and basketball teams, going back to the 1970s," Jim Bendat, the original donor, said. "At that time, there was no campaign on Kevin's behalf. Doug tells me that he got the idea for the campaign after seeing the joy Kevin received upon receiving my package."
On June 19, Meffley wrote a blog post about Kevin's story and asked Northwestern's alumni and fan base from across the nation to pick up a schedule card at the next local game they went to and drop it in the mail for Kevin. Meffley admits he did not expect a big response.
"When we first put the story up, we were hoping for some cards, but we really just wanted to honor Kevin as someone who has been so dedicated and builds his life around supporting our student athletes," Meffley said. "He got so much joy out of his face being featured on our website that that was almost more of a reward than the schedule cards."
Within two days, Meffley received a huge package from the Big Ten Network. Other news outlets and blogs picked up Kevin's story. It began circulating with online groups for schedule card collectors, and that's when the big packages started arriving at the athletic department.
"Little by little, packages and cards started coming in, and as it continued to be shared and show up on different blogs, the trickle became a flood," Meffley said. "That's the legs that this story had. It was overwhelming right from that first box up until last week when we got another box with 30 or 40 cards in it."
One of the most special packages, according to Meffley, came from Matt Bentz, an Illinois native and huge White Sox fan just like Kevin. Bentz first learned about the Schedule Cards for Kevin campaign through a fellow schedule card collector. As a collector of "White Sox goodies," as he puts it, and Chicagoland schedules, Bentz put together an impressive donation of not only schedule cards but also baseball card sets dating back to the 1970s, including the 1988 Topps Set, the 1989 Donruss Set, and this year's Upper Deck Set.
"When I read information about Kevin, I could connect with his huge heart," Bentz said. "I could easily see myself chatting White Sox with Kevin. I knew that I had some extra things, and as Kevin brightens so many people's day, hopefully I could brighten his day."
This is very typical of the pocket schedule collector network, which does a great job of supporting each other, according to Bentz.
"I am unable to count the number of times collectors sent me items or I sent them schedules to add to their collections, wanting nothing in return," Bentz said. "We simply support each other in growing our collection."
With the help of Meffley and the Northwestern athletic department, Kevin is now a part of that supportive network of schedule card collectors. For two months, Meffley and the Northwestern athletic department collected the flood of envelopes and packages of donation that came in, and on Kevin's 36th birthday, they hosted a little party to present all the cards to Kevin.
"The presentation was a thank you from all of the NU athletics staff for all the support and devotion he has shown over the years," said Drew Crawford, senior guard/forward for the men's basketball team. "It was really neat to show that people around the country care, and it was great for us to show how much we care about him."
Kevin does more than just fill a seat at a game or remind a staff member of when a game is on. He truly brightens everyone's day and has become a part of the Northwestern family, according to Meffley.
"You could be having the worst day, absolutely buried under work and just having a really crappy day, but when you hear him come in, it just brings a smile to your face," Meffley said. "Some visits can be an hour and a half. You may not have time for that, but you make that time because it's such a joy. It's a pure joy to experience his joy of being here and his overall pleasantness and heart."
More than his love of sports, Kevin's personality endears him to the staff and student-athletes he cheers for constantly.
"Kevin is one of the most good-hearted people that I know," Allard said. "His love for life, and more importantly his love for sports, radiates from his body at every moment."
Kevin's passion for sports gives him a way to relate to the world despite his developmental disability.
"For Kevin, it's how he connects with people in general," Meffley said. "He's more knowledgeable about a lot of aspects of teams, their schedules and the way they are working than most sports fans. It's a conversation he's able to have with anyone."
The total count from the Schedule Cards for Kevin campaign: Roughly 500 envelopes and packages with thousands and thousands of schedule cards. After all the boxes were given to Kevin, Harty asked, "Think we made it to 100, Kev?"
"I told you it was going to over a hundred," Kevin declared confidently, clapping and flashing two thumbs up to everyone in the room.