SPRING HILL — Every year, in every town across America, basketball teams raise money.
Usually it's for uniforms, equipment or traveling money for that tournament bid.
And when the boys varsity players at Nature Coast Technical High School started knocking on doors this year for their own fundraising drive, they figured it was the same old thing.
They sold Dunkin' Donuts coffee by the bagful, sold advertising banners and helped out at the concession stand at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.
"We all thought it was going to the program, for us," said senior forward Frankie Rodriguez. "When we found out it was going to someone who needed it, we were excited."
It was more than that, actually. Team members didn't just raise money for a worthy cause. They didn't just save Christmas for two families in need. They drove over to their houses, looked them in the eye and saw the results of their efforts.
On a recent afternoon, the team loaded up several sport utility vehicles with holiday gifts for the families. They had raised nearly $1,500, with organizational help and inspiration from parent Mike Bergantino. Coach David Pisarcik matched those contributions from a booster fund.
It was all still a bit unreal to several players.
"For a long time they didn't have electricity or anything," freshman forward John Parker marveled about one of the families' plights.
Then the players were off to the home of Milton Van Sandt, whose family has seen far more than its share of tragedy.
In 2001, Van Sandt's first wife and 7-year-old son were killed in a car accident in Guatemala. Van Sandt has struggled to recover from his own injuries, and has been unable to find steady work to support his new wife and four children.
Walking up the driveway bearing gifts, the team's varsity swagger was gone. The nerves of a big game were nothing compared to this.
"I don't remember being so quiet when I was in high school," Van Sandt began, once the team had squeezed into his den.
"It's a big Christmas for us," he said, as his children eyed the dollhouse, the sports equipment, the games. "Financially, we don't have anything."
His disability check and some monthly death benefits from his late wife are just enough to meet the rent, he said. When he tries to work, the pain of his injuries is nearly unbearable.
Van Sandt told the players to live every day like it was their last on earth, and treat their opponents like brothers. Leave the competition on the court, and don't let anyone walk away without a kind word.
"I know there are a lot of families that are going through the same things we're going through," he added. "I know some of you might have thought this was cheesy, didn't want to do it. But you did a good thing."
Soon the team would be visiting a second family, one that didn't want their desperate needs to be public knowledge. Public or private, it didn't matter. This was bigger than basketball.
"It kind of touched my heart," said Frankie Rodriguez. "Because I know I'm helping a good family."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.