HARRISBURG -- Thirty-nine years ago, when Bill Neal was program director at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, he asked Connie Hawkins if he could use the basketball great's name for a youth athletic program.
Before long, as Mr. Neal tells it, he would also meet with Franco Harris and Willie Stargell as he launched the summer leagues, football camps and awards banquets of Champion Enterprises, the all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization that now serves 5,000 young people each year through a variety of programs. While teens and children from all backgrounds participate, about 70 percent are from low-income families, Mr. Neal said.
"Everything we do has been about developing the champion spirit," Mr. Neal said. "It's been about developing young minds and bodies, along with their spirit. We have a saying: Champions aren't born, they're made."
Today, Mr. Neal will be one of several Pennsylvanians honored by Gov. Tom Corbett, first lady Susan Corbett and the Governor's Advisory Commission on African American Affairs at an event marking Black History Month.
Samuel Black, the longtime director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center, is among them. Mr. Black, who also serves as president of the Association of African American Museums, worked for years on the new exhibit "From Slavery to Freedom," which examines more than 250 years of African-American history.
The other honorees include state corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, Harrisburg TV anchor Valerie Pritchett of abc27 News, Peggy Sims, executive director, Sisters Returning Home in Philadelphia and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston.
Mr. Neal, 61, of Penn Hills said he sees the award as recognition, too, of the hundreds who have volunteered for Champion Enterprises programs.
Professional athletes have been among those volunteers. Dwayne D. Woodruff, now a judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, said Mr. Neal approached him about helping during his rookie year with the Steelers in 1979. He described Mr. Neal as a "go-getter" who found a receptive audience in the team.
Dominick Gambino, a member of the Champion Enterprises board, said he has seen young people who went on to college athletics return to thank Mr. Neal as they would a teacher.
"Sports is just a conduit for him to talk to these kids about life in general and how to compete in life," Mr. Gambino said.
Karen Langley: email@example.com, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.