Behind-the-Scenes of the Football Team’s White House Visit

Kara Kots and Kelly Murphy

Jun 27, 2023

Group photo in front of the White House

An Unexpected Invitation

It was May 24 when North Central College Head Football Coach Brad Spencer ’04 heard the familiar chime on his computer. He had a new email.

“Subject: White House College Athlete Day” 

Equal parts intrigued and shocked, he clicked and read: 

“President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden recently announced they will be hosting a “College Athlete Day” to celebrate the 2022-23 women’s and men’s NCAA champion teams from all three divisions. As one of this year’s NCAA champions, your team will be among the invited guests to attend this historic event to be held on the lawn of the White House on June 12.”

NCC jersey“For a moment, I didn’t think the email was real,” Spencer said.

But it wasn’t spam. It was real.

While it’s common for professional sports teams and NCAA Division I athletic programs to have the privilege of celebrating a championship at the White House, the North Central College Cardinals football team was being invited to an unprecedented event — one that would honor 47 teams in 19 different sports across all three NCAA divisions. The Cardinals won the program’s second NCAA Division III football championship on Dec. 17, 2022, to cap a perfect 15-0 season.

Destination 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The next few weeks were a flurry of preparations before more than a dozen members of the championship roster traveled with Spencer and other full-time coaching staff to Washington, D.C., for the occasion.

“We decided to take our captains and seniors. We felt they deserved to go as a culmination of their careers and all the ways they have lifted this program to the level it is today,” Spencer said. “It was a great 24 hours with them to relive memories and be in awe that we were inside the gates of the White House.”

On the day of the event, patriotic music filled the air as the team’s representatives waited to pass through security checkpoints. They were joined by Dr. Jessica Brown, vice president for student affairs and athletics at North Central, and two members of the College’s Office of Institutional Communication: Kelly Murphy, director of communication and public relations, and Kara Kots ’18/M ’23, senior social media specialist.

“We were grateful to be there,” Brown said. “For Division III student-athletes to receive the same spotlight as student-athletes in Division I and Division II was great.”

Cardinals posing outside White HouseOnce through security, hundreds of athletes mingled on the historic South Lawn before the ceremony. When the program began, Cardinals running back Ethan Greenfield ’22, winner of the 2022 Gagliardi Trophy as the Division III college football player of the year, had the honor of being on stage with representatives from the other teams. NCAA President Charlie Baker made welcome remarks. The President and First Lady could not attend in person. Instead, Vice President Kamala Harris stepped out on stage to offer her congratulations: 

“When you take the court [or field], you inspire so many across our country — people you may never meet — not only because of how you play but because of who each of you is every day,” she said. “You remind all of us of what we can achieve when we work hard and strive with ambition.” She added, “You are leaders. You are role models. And, of course, you are champions.” View the “College Athlete Day” ceremony here.

Kamala HarrisA Cardinal Connection in the White House

After the ceremony, the Cardinals met up with one of their own: Bry’Shawna Walker ’22, who serves as a White House staffer in the Office of Presidential Personnel.

Walker provided a tour of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), which houses various agencies that comprise the Executive Office of the President, such as the White House Office, the Office of the Vice President, the Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Council.

Before the group departed, she arranged for the group to take a photo on the Navy Steps adjacent to the entrance for the West Wing of the White House — adding just one more incredible memory to the day. 

“It was a great honor to be invited to the White House. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We are all very grateful,” said Terrence Hill ’22. 

Greenfield agreed. “Being in the nation’s capital with so many other college athletes and appreciated for the hard work we put into our sports meant a lot,” he said. “To represent North Central and shake hands with the vice president was a cool experience. But the best part was to be together with our teammates and coaches in that setting.”

Group photo10 Things We’ll Always Remember

Two members of North Central College’s Office of Institutional Communications traveled to Washington, D.C., to document the football team’s historic visit to the White House. Kelly Murphy, director of communication and public relations, and Kara Kots ’18/ M’23, senior social media specialist, were struck by the many sights and sounds during the trip.

Here’s their top 10 list of memories from our nation’s capital:

#1: Being welcomed to the White House South Lawn by uniformed servers who offered lemonade on silver platters and napkins with the presidential seal.

#2: The backdrop of the White House’s South Portico — its six iconic columns standing tall — beyond the stage for the ceremony.

#3: Standing on the South Lawn and seeing the Washington and Jefferson monuments in the distance. 

#4: Watching the reactions of student-athletes from across the nation and feeling their pride all around us.

#5: Wishing we were taller as we stood in the audience with our camera and phones in the air to capture the event.

#6: Seeing Vice President Kamala Harris shake hands with Ethan Greenfield ’22 while he was on stage for the ceremony.

#7: Meeting North Central College alum Bry’Shawna Walker ’22 — proof that Cardinal connections can happen even 702 miles from Naperville.

#8: Touring the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building with Bry’Shawna, including catching a glimpse of the podium that was used in the first televised presidential inauguration ceremonies in 1949.

#9: Being shown the room where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey for hours in efforts to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

#10: When departing the White House grounds, seeing President Biden’s motorcade go by!

Catch up with all the media coverage of the Cardinals’ historic visit to the White House.

Photos by Kara Kots ’18/M ’23