August 30, 2016

The perfect pairing

For fans and athletes alike, sports often represent more than just a game. It’s not always about winning or losing, playing well or poorly, achieving success or failure. Sports can act as an escape and a symbol for something much greater. Growing up, many people use sports as an escape from the responsibilities of daily life. Fans enjoy sports as a way to relieve stress and forget about their real-world challenges for even just a couple of hours. Above all else, sports can ultimately serve as a platform to bring people together from various backgrounds and interests.

A strong interest in the values of sports and a passion for education is what pulled Lee Esckilsen and Charbel Hanna together. They came from different worlds — Esckilsen is an educated businessman and a golf-loving college professor, while Hanna is an aspiring young student from a family where no one had earned a college degree. These two had never met before, but the Tiger Woods Foundation played matchmaker based on an essay, an application and several interviews.

“I feel like I have a good grasp on life and its process, and I’ve had a lot of fortune in my life, so I wanted to be able to give back,” Esckilsen said. “I met Charbel a couple years ago during his senior year of high school, and the first thing we did was go to a Pawtucket Red Sox game to hang out for a bit.”

Hanna was awarded a scholarship from the Red Sox Foundation in fifth grade and became very close with the foundation throughout the remainder of his education. By the time he was preparing for high school graduation, the Red Sox informed Hanna about the Tiger Woods Foundation’s Earl Woods Scholarship Program, which provides both financial support and guidance from mentors, such as Esckilsen, to first-generation college students. A couple different essays and interviews later, a beautiful relationship was born after Esckilsen and Hanna were both accepted into the program and paired up in 2014.

“Ultimately, I felt like the application process was really long, only because I was so anxious to find out if I was accepted to the program,” Hanna said. “In a month or so, I was able to find out the news, and after that, being an Earl Woods Scholar has changed my life dramatically.”

Esckilsen’s daily job as a professor at Johnson & Wales University affords him the opportunity to work with about 160 college students every semester, a role in which he acts as a mentor for many young college students. His vast experience with students in the same position as Hanna allows Esckilsen to understand what he is going through and provide the necessary guidance. Esckilsen continually preaches about the difference between content and process in education. Most students focus on just content, which is the information taught in classrooms. However, Esckilsen believes the process of education — what they go through, all the way from the first day of freshman year to graduation, and how to apply these learned skills in life — is not emphasized enough. In addition, Esckilsen believes one of the most important roles he plays for Hanna is a sounding board. He listens, giving Hanna the opportunity to express his feelings and talk through issues, which eventually leads him to make the right decision. To Hanna, these lessons are invaluable.

Hanna will be entering his junior year of college in the fall, and the success that he has achieved both inside and outside the classroom would not have been possible without Esckilsen.

“In high school, I worked two part-time jobs, and I thought college was not going to be an option for me,” Hanna said. “But, the Tiger Woods Foundation helped me financially so that I could go to college, and it has also allowed me to meet Lee, who is someone I can talk to regarding any questions I may have. Being a first-generation college student, my parents weren’t familiar with the issues of being a college student. Being able to call Lee in the blink of an eye and get an answer to a question or thoughtful advice — I can’t even put a price tag on it.”

Besides helping Hanna accomplish terrific feats in education, Esckilsen has also facilitated his development into a better man outside of school and supported his maturity in becoming more outgoing.

“I have grown tremendously in terms of overcoming shyness to talk to people and connect with them on a personal level,” Hanna said. “Lee has given me so much confidence and motivation. Now, I’m so eager to meet people, and I’m motivated to try new things, and I couldn’t have gotten to this point without Lee’s support. I know that I’m always thinking about him and that he’s always thinking about me.”

Nevertheless, the value of their relationship is a two-way street.

“When you’re a mentor, the concept is that you are going to give a lot of advice and a lot of recommendations to really help somebody understand things and achieve a higher level of learning,” Esckilsen said. “I was so fortunate because Charbel is such a great young man and a self-starter. I feel like he’s mentoring me, and I’m the mentee, but he’s a tremendous young man, and he has a tremendous amount of potential in his career. It’s just nice knowing that there’s somebody, if they need something, they can call me, and I can help them with it.”

Esckilsen has been volunteering with the Deutsche Bank Championship since the tournament’s inception in 2003, but meeting Hanna and becoming involved with the Tiger Woods Foundation has only increased his passion for this Labor Day weekend tradition. 

“It’s the focus of New England because it’s part of the FedExCup Playoffs,” Esckilsen said. “This is literally the best 100 golfers in the world who come to play here, so the community gets a huge amount of focus from that standpoint. It’s just a fun and fabulous atmosphere to be around.”

However, Esckilsen also deeply treasures the championship for a different reason, and he learned to make the most from his time with Hanna due to an important chapter in his life coming to an end. One of Esckilsen’s best friends was diagnosed with cancer, and he had been constantly bugging his buddy, an avid golf fan, to join him at the Deutsche Bank Championship, but life got in the way, and things never seemed to work out. Finally, as his friend’s condition worsened, Esckilsen was able to welcome him to the tournament for an unusually special holiday weekend. The two friends received exclusive tickets and access passes, which allowed Esckilsen to experience one of the most unforgettable and emotional moments of his life.

With both pals being left-handed golfers, they each took great joy in watching the sport’s iconic lefties, including Phil Mickelson. Early in the morning, before the crowds had even began flowing through the winding paths of the gorgeous TPC Boston course, Esckilsen and his best friend were able to observe Mickelson up close at the practice range, watching one of golf’s most famous athletes smash balls with ease into the wilderness of TPC Boston.

“I brought him out, and we got onto the range. We literally stood there, just the two of us,” Esckilsen reminisced. “The one thing that, to this day, I wish I had done was get a picture of us while he was here, but now I have this wonderful memory of me and him standing on the driving range watching Phil Mickelson. From a personal standpoint, that was fabulous.”

That same year, Esckilsen’s buddy passed away. Yet, the memories of that special moment watching Mickelson continue to fuel Esckilsen in sharing the Deutsche Bank Championship with others who need a helping hand.

Until now, Hanna had never been to the Deutsche Bank Championship due to conflicts with school. Esckilsen is bringing him to this year’s tournament and is eager to introduce him to what became his favorite part of the event after experiencing it with his departed friend several years ago. 

“Really early in the morning, before the crowds are even on the property, I love going to the driving range and watching the pros hit balls just like rocket ships,” Esckilsen said. “They’re like machines. You think that they’re shooting guns because of how straight the balls are and how far they hit them. I love the sound.”