When your most famous former student-athlete steps up to thank you by becoming your biggest former student-athlete donor, the cycle has officially begun.
The “cycle” is part of The FGCU Effect: inspiring those who, in turn, inspire others. In its almost 20-year history, Florida Gulf Coast University’s Athletics department has inspired countless student-athletes to go on and do great things in life, perhaps none more so than Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale. A seven-time major league All-Star who’s well along a Baseball Hall of Fame path – thanks in part to the inspiration he got from FGCU Coach Dave Tollett, his staff and the entire Athletics staff – Sale exemplifies the cycle of inspiring Eagle student-athletes who come after him.
Blessed with a five-year, $145-million contract extension from the Red Sox that began just before spring training was cut short by the COVID-19 outbreak, Sale and his wife, FGCU alum Brianne (’16, Communication), donated $1 million at the annual Night at the Nest fundraiser in December to kick off the new EAGLE Campaign. The announcement was the highlight of a record-setting Night at the Nest that brought in $675,000 for FGCU Athletics.
For the record, the gift is both the largest by a former student-athlete (Chris Sale) and by an FGCU undergraduate alum (Brianne Sale) in FGCU history. In the university’s view, the lefthanded, gunslinger-style pitcher who towers over hitters atop a mound at 6 feet, 6 inches has never stood taller.
The tall, gangly pitcher from Lakeland High School had exactly one NCAA Division I scholarship offer: from Tollett and FGCU. By the time he left FGCU’s Swanson Stadium wearing the Green and Blue for the last time in 2010, that figurative string bean had grown into the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year and the No. 13 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft, by the Chicago White Sox.
Since his trade to Boston in 2016, Sale – who makes Naples his permanent home with Brianne and their three sons – has come full-circle, getting to spend spring training in Southwest Florida while maintaining close ties with FGCU. When a plasma injection and rest after he was shut down last season failed to permanently heal his damaged elbow, and he again stopped throwing this spring, Sale had ulnar collateral ligament surgery — aka Tommy John surgery — March 30. He plans to rehab near home in Southwest Florida, with an expected recovery time of 14 to 15 months.
“Chris and Brianne’s generosity is truly amazing,” said Ken Kavanagh, FGCU athletics director. “As we get ready to embark on our third decade as an intercollegiate athletics program, it is imperative that we continue to generate external resources to provide to our coaches and student-athletes.”
Kavanagh credits much of the Eagles’ competitive success to the “tremendous generosity of our local community, who have essentially adopted us.” Sale himself made that same shout-out in announcing his transformative gift.
“There has been a core group of people at FGCU who have really helped the university grow over the years,” said Sale, who, in reflecting upon how much FGCU has meant to his family, called his million-dollar contribution a “no-brainer.” The gift will be used toward the Chris & Brianne Sale Family videoboard system completed in March at Swanson Stadium.
“The Swanson family has done so much for the baseball program specifically, and we’re trying to broaden that support overall,” Sale said. “I’m happy to follow in their footsteps to make an impact.”
And so the cycle of inspiration by giving back begins. The “bigger and better” mission to which Sale refers is central to the EAGLE Campaign, which follows an original $5 million expansion of Alico Arena. Goals of the campaign include updating the Sublett Strength & Conditioning Center and other facility improvements; assisting student-athlete needs in academic success, life skills, mental health, nutrition and competitive fitness; and mentorship and leadership training for coaches and staff.