It began with a couple thousand soccer balls. About six years ago, local attorney Donald Becker was visiting an acquaintance at the old Big Toe Soccer warehouse here. He noticed the previous model year's balls languishing. Becker asked what it would cost to buy the lot so he could donate them to local outreach programs serving kids in lower-income neighborhoods. An agreement was reached.
"I ended up having a soccer-ball storage issue for a while," Becker says, a rueful laugh punctuating the statement. That issue has been resolved, but his commitment to sports persists. In recent years, Becker Law has emerged as a sponsor for a growing number of sporting events.
Becker Law, a firm specializing in Social Security disability and Supplemental Security Income cases, is often listed among sponsors for cross-country ski races, charity bike tours and similar events.
Becker, an avid cross-country skier for more than 30 years, got involved four years ago, when he heard Yuriy Gusev was organizing the inaugural Capitol Square Sprints cross-country ski event. Becker Law signed on to the sprints as sponsor for an appearance by the U.S. disabled cross-country ski team, which included a woman who had lost one of her arms "and two fellas with artificial legs," he remembers. "They could all ski faster than I can."
By bringing the team to Madison, Becker, 57, helped introduce local people with disabilities to the possibility that they could still enjoy cross-country skiing. "There was a little girl who came up on two crutches, working real hard because there's snow," he remembers. "Suddenly, she's on this sit ski, and she's just giggling and laughing, with a smile as big as anything. For that instant, what worries are there in the world? There are no worries."
Yuriy Gusev calls Becker Law's sponsorship of what has since grown to become the Madison Winter Festival "just the tip of the huge iceberg" of its support for Nordic skiing and other recreational events. The list grows ever larger as Becker has extended his generosity to fishing opportunities for kids, to Madison School & Community Recreation, to the MS 150 Best Dam Bike Tour, AIDS Network Cycles Together, the American Birkebeiner and Iron County's two-day Stormy Kromer Pursuit cross-country ski event.
Becker's sponsorship of the two bike tours was motivated by the fact that his firm's clients include people with multiple sclerosis and AIDS. His participation in the Birkie since 1978 and his more recent Stormy Kromer experience led him to support those races.
He contributes more than dollars. At last year's 24 Hours of Telemark cross-country ski race, he volunteered for the early morning shift: "Somebody has to be there for the 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift and keep the fire going as they come out of the woods and that sort of thing. I was hooting at people and cheering them on and saying hello to friends, and I enjoy that as well. It was all about having fun."
He estimates that in the last six years, his firm's sporting sponsorships have totaled somewhere in the low six figures. This amounts to perhaps one-fourth of Becker Law's philanthropy, which ranges from Operation Fresh Start and the Wheelchair Recycling Program to agencies serving children. But he downplays the largesse. "It's not about writing the big check," he emphasizes.
Ned Zuelsdorff, the Birkie's executive director, nonetheless cites Becker as "a very generous and consistent supporter" of the Birkie and other silent sports, noting that for the past two years his contributions toward completion of the Birkie Classic Trail have been exemplary.
"Finding and retaining sponsors is not easy," Zuelsdorff says, "especially with the current economic situation. There are other Birkie skiers who run successful businesses. It would benefit the Birkie greatly if these people were able to provide even a portion of the support that Don has demonstrated."
Becker says sponsorship opportunities abound for anyone who wants to marry their enthusiasm to commitment. "You can do it in a hundred different ways," he explains. "Find something that you're passionate about, an organization that supports that passion and give them a call."