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Unleashed

Joey Brunk: A Big Man with a Big Heart

By Sarah Bahr

JO-EY! JO-EY!

Twenty-one-year-old Butler men’s basketball center Joey Brunk has just checked into the game, and the cheers from the 9,100 fans packing Hinkle Fieldhouse are thunderous.

"He’s so likeable that people cheer like crazy just when he enters the game,” Butler Associate Athletic Director John Dedman says. “Luckily Nate [Fowler] understands that fans aren’t cheering that he is going to the bench.”

Brunk pushes a soft, loose wave of what Twitter users have called the “golden mane” and “the best hair in college basketball” away from his face, a grin peeking through his Matthew McConaughey-inspired beard and mustache, and steps to the line. Swishes the free throw.

Tonight, he can’t miss.

An hour later, he walks off the court, through the locker room …

… and heads back to his dorm, where he’ll strip off his size-17 sneakers, maybe read some poetry or a JFK biography (“He’s my favorite president”) before curling his 6-11 frame into a bed not made for a man who could nearly stand head to head with a small adult elephant.

In the morning, it’ll be time to teach poetry to second-graders.

 

In a Class of His Own

Brunk, an Elementary Education major and aspiring teacher, spent last semester student teaching in a second-grade class at the Butler University Laboratory School on Wednesdays.

His first full-class lesson was an introduction to emotion poetry.

“I was a little worried they might come in with negative attitudes, but they enjoyed it,” Brunk says. “I had them read a poem and then act out different emotions—I was the photographer, and everyone else was an actor.”

“It got lots of laughs.”

Brunk says there aren’t a lot of men in elementary education—last semester, he was one of only two guys in his elementary-education class.

“The kids thought it was cool that I was a guy teaching them,” he says. “I tried to be cool, whether it was talking ESPN, last night’s NBA games, or SportsCenter highlights.”

But as he rests his fist on his chin in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker sculpture, the mid-morning sunlight streaming into Hinkle Fieldhouse streaking his wavy hair, it isn’t hard to believe the hard-charging center whom Butler Director of Basketball Operations Brandon Crone calls a “gentle giant” is a poetry aficionado.

“He’s so patient,” Crone says. “He just has a presence. I have a 3-year-old son, and Joey’s always one of the first to give him high fives and hugs in the locker room.”

No one in Brunk’s immediate family is a teacher, but after volunteering in a fifth-grade class at Southport Elementary School a few days per week his senior year of high school, he was sold.

“I wanted the kids to be able to have a positive role model,” he says.

It’s a role Brunk also tries to play for his younger brother, Johnny, a sophomore guard at Roncalli High School, about 20 minutes south of Butler.

Being able to stay close to Johnny was one of the reasons Brunk, a four-star prospect out of Southport in 2016, chose Butler over offers from a bevy of Big Ten schools, including Indiana and Purdue.

“I went to Butler so I could see my brother play,” Brunk says. “I grew up in a family where everyone was at everyone else’s stuff.”

Which meant his Friday nights were never exactly, umm, wild.

“I was expected to be at every one of my brother’s Little League games and practices,” Brunk says. “And he attended all my practices and workouts.”

But supporting his younger brother has never been a chore for the Butler big man.

“He was there to support me, so I want to support him,” Brunk says.

Family first.

So it was never a question for Brunk to forego the remainder of his first-year season to spend time with his dad after Joe Brunk was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2016.

 

His Biggest Fan

Brunk has been to the Indianapolis Zoo no fewer than 500 times.

He would go with his family once or twice a week from age 2 on, always wanting to look at the same things—the lions, tigers, and his current favorite animal, the red panda. And the animal-lover also says his parents enabled a fearsome Zoobooks addiction.

“They paid for a monthly subscription, and it went on so long that I’d have three copies of the exact same issue,” he says.

He honors his dad by visiting a local zoo with Butler play-by-play radio announcer Mark Minner whenever the team travels for a tournament. It’s a way for Brunk to keep his hero with him.

Brunk and his dad, a two-time NAIA All-American at Hanover College, bonded over basketball from the beginning. They attended games at Hinkle Fieldhouse together, and Joe Brunk was his son’s first AAU coach.

“He was my biggest critic—and my biggest fan,” Joey Brunk says.

His dad would pick him up from middle school every day and drive him to the gym for workouts, a dedication that paid off when Brunk was a Top 100 recruit and one of the three finalists for the statewide IndyStar Mr. Basketball award as a high school senior.

“There were lots of mornings when—God bless both my parents—they’d get up at 5:30 AM to drive me to the high school for a workout,” Joey Brunk says. “My dad would rebound for me, and my mom would pack me breakfast, lunch, and something for the way home from school so I could eat again before going to the gym.”

Joe Brunk was there to watch Joey’s Southport team beat Ben Davis 60-57 for the sectional championship during Brunk’s senior year—and Joey hoped he’d one day get to watch Butler win an NCAA Championship.

Then, in November 2016, his dad was hospitalized while visiting friends in Las Vegas.

“It was completely unexpected,” Joey Brunk says. “I flew to Nevada right away.”

The diagnosis? A brain tumor.

Brunk stayed at his dad’s side in Southport for the next six months, foregoing the remainder of his first-year season to spend the last moments of his dad’s life with his hero.

“We laughed; we cried; we told stories,” Joey Brunk says. “There was never any dead airspace.”

Joe Brunk died April 15, 2017, at age 56.

But, true to his dad’s mantra of living with passion, Brunk made a vow: He wouldn’t be depressed.

He’d be the Energizer Bunny.

 

Butler’s Energizer Bunny

Drop in on a Hinkle Fieldhouse practice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a happier guy than Brunk. He wears his dad’s No. 50 jersey, another reminder of the man who helped him achieve his dream of playing Division I basketball.

Brunk doubled down on his dedication to the sport this summer, using the offseason to transform his body with as many as four workouts each day, ranging from hot yoga to shooting with his brother at Roncalli. He dropped 10 pounds, from 240 to 230, and increased his maximum bench press from 230 to 260 pounds.

And it’s paid off: He’s averaging 8.6 points per game this season, compared to last year’s 1.3. His average rebounds per game are up to 4.4 from 1.8. And his average minutes per game have quadrupled, from five to 20.

The NCAA granted Brunk an additional season, awarding him a hardship waiver for his first year, as he only played in seven games before stepping away to be with his dad. That means he’s a redshirt sophomore this season, with two years of eligibility remaining.

Crone says that, despite his dad’s death, nothing about Brunk’s personality has changed.

“He’s the same Joey I’ve known for five years,” he says. “He’s the Energizer Bunny in the locker room.”

“Dad and I always talked about living your life in a way that you’re excited to wake up,” Joey Brunk says. “There are lots of people who would die to be in this position.”

Joey Brunk
UnleashedStudent Life

Joey Brunk: A Big Man with a Big Heart

The Butler Men's Basketball center is dedicated to achieving his dream and helping others do the same. 

Katie Pfaff: A Small-Town Success Story

By Sarah Bahr

They were beautiful, those tiaraed Indy 500 Festival princesses in black-and-white sashes, visiting a Lewisville elementary school in a small, rural Indiana farm community more than a decade ago. They inspired a mesmerized Katie Pfaff to dream of one day donning a crown herself.

Though the 21-year-old Butler University senior’s big dreams would take her 60 miles west of the farm where she grew up—more on that in a minute—she’s always had a soft spot for driving down a backroad with no destination in sight, or digging into a slice of the apple-crumb pie her grandma would make her each April 25 because she didn’t like birthday cake.

Small-town life was comforting. There were euchre games with dozens of cousins around the fire on Friday nights, tractor rides through the rustling corn under the fading pinks and purples of an August Indiana sunset. The breeze tickled her hair as she clutched her brother’s back, looking up at the stars in wide, open spaces with no skyscrapers to fill them.

Her graduating class had 60 people in it, in a town of 366.

When both grandparents died on the same day before Christmas one year, her family didn’t cook for a week—her neighbors kept ringing the doorbell with plates of chicken and spaghetti. Their driveway was cleared of snow by an unseen phantom, as though someone had poured hot lava on the white mass and left a sparkling drive.

But Pfaff wasn’t content to accept the charity of others—she was ready to repay it.

 

A Gathering Place

Pfaff, her parents, and her older twin brothers Tyler and Tom started their own business her sophomore year of high school; a Lewisville wedding and event venue known as The Gathering. They converted an old church into a place to celebrate marriages, birthdays, and Christmas—anything that would bring people together.

But when Pfaff went off to college at Butler, some in her hometown thought she’d never come back. She’d become a city girl, forsaking her farm roots. Her role in the family business would be toast.

At first, it looked like they were right.

The minute Pfaff stepped on the Butler campus, the senior Strategic Communication and Human Communication & Organizational Leadership double major was smitten with the big-city school’s small-town feel.

“I don’t know everyone on campus, but it takes no more than a five-second conversation while getting coffee for someone to not feel like a stranger anymore,” she says. 

But all the opportunities could be overwhelming for someone who’d always wanted to do everything.

Her Ethics professor noticed her stress and offered to buy her coffee at the campus Starbucks last spring. But when she walked into class, setting her cup on the table, someone bumped into it, and her drink hit the deck.

“I was paralyzed,” she says. “But Professor Norris waited until everyone had left, bought me another cup of coffee, and sat down for an hour to talk about what I was feeling. He just wanted to know how he could make my day better.”

It was that conversation with Norris, she says, that inspired her to take on a leadership role with Butler’s BUBeWell initiative last spring, a program designed to keep stressed-out students sane while cultivating their mental, physical, and social wellbeing.

Going to Butler was a big adjustment for a small-town girl. She’d come across more people in a single day of walking across campus than she’d meet in an entire year in Lewisville. She missed her mom’s bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; Friday nights around the fire with her parents and brothers, biting into slices of ooey, gooey cheese pizza.

Then she realized: She needed structure.

She set a “golden rule” for herself: She’d be in bed by midnight every evening, no matter whether it was Tuesday or Saturday.

She joined a sorority and found friends like her roommate of two years, 21-year-old Butler pharmacy student Chloe Sandman, who also grew up in a small town and shares Pfaff’s love of ice cream and Hallmark movies.

Now that she was secure in herself, it was time to begin giving back. To the parents who invested in her. To the school that sculpted her.

To the town that raised her.

 

A Royal Coronation

But first, let’s talk about the 178-page paper she just finished writing. Not by herself, of course. The assignment was an eight-person group project for her senior communication capstone class. But 25 pages of that behemoth were hers.

It was that commitment to academics that propelled her to princesshood.

She was chosen as one of 33 Indianapolis 500 Festival princesses in spring 2018 out of a field of more than 2,000 women—just over 33 times the size of her high school graduating class.

Her days sometimes started as early as 3 AM and ended as late as 1 AM (sorry, “golden rule”). She could work as many as three events in a day.

“I spent countless hours doing community outreach in nursing homes and elementary schools,” she says.

But Pfaff’s internship advisor, Butler Communication professor Scott Bridge, says Pfaff has never been one to court recognition for her accomplishments.

“She doesn’t try to draw attention to herself,” he says. “But she does things so well that she can’t help it.”   

Pfaff is still involved in The Gathering’s operations in her hometown, from running social media to answering calls between classes, and coming home on weekends and breaks to help out. She’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the college ambitions of children in her community through an internship with her hometown scholarship foundation.

And when Cindy Oler, a Lewisville dance instructor who taught Pfaff for 13 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Pfaff choreographed a sign-language routine to the song “Blessings” by Laura Story and taught it to Oler’s dance troupe.

“The movements are simple, pure, and so beautiful,” Oler says. “We now teach it every year, invoking the name of the kind and loving heart that created the piece.”

But as soon as she got the call last February that she would be a 500 Festival princess, she knew there was one more thing she had to do.

 

Full Circle

The gleaming blue Chevy rolled up in front of the Lewisville school last May, dozens of eyeballs glued to the 2018 Indianapolis 500 pace car’s star-studded chrome wheels.

Pfaff and several other princesses brought the glitz and glamour of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” to Henry County, and Pfaff even got to wave the checkered flag at the end of the school’s tricycle race she’d pedaled in as a kid.

“It meant everything to me,” Pfaff says.

Being a princess comes with crazy hours—one 3 AM Mini Marathon wakeup call came after she’d stayed up past midnight the night before to finish a final paper—but she always keeps things in perspective.

“So many people would love to be where I am,” she says.

She’s one of Butler’s Top 100 students, a Chapman Champion Award recipient for her exemplary service to the University, and a soon-to-be intern with Indy Hub, an Indianapolis nonprofit designed to help the city attract and retain young professionals.

But most meaningful to her?

The smiles on those little Lewisville boys’ and girls’ faces.

UnleashedStudent Life

Katie Pfaff: A Small-Town Success Story

From rural Indiana to a princess, Katie's journey has always been focused on helping others. 

Maria De Leon: A Lifelong Activist

By Sarah Bahr

Twelve-year-old Maria De Leon was on the phone with a doctor 40 years her senior.

She was translating a pain-pill prescription from English for her Spanish-speaking parents—but struggling with unfamiliar words like ‘hydrocodone’ and ‘acetaminophen.’

The language is rife with false cognates; each an opportunity for disaster.

‘Intoxicado’ doesn’t mean intoxicated, but ingested. ‘Embarazada’ means not embarrassed, but pregnant.

“That was something my parents didn’t understand,” she says. “Even though I do know English, I don’t know all the words.”

She would translate insurance claims, doctor’s appointments, sometimes even conversations with lawyers.

It was challenging, she says—her parents, who moved to the United States from Guatemala before she was born and have the equivalent of elementary-school educations, don’t speak enough English “to survive,” in her words.

Which meant that in high school, she was on her own to navigate the FAFSA, scholarships, SAT, and college application process.

But she didn’t end up a dropout.

She graduated salutatorian.

And won a full-tuition scholarship to any college in Indiana.

 

“Will Getting Arrested Keep me From Attending Butler?”

Except she almost didn’t.

Butler admission counselor Whitney Ramsay’s phone buzzed one morning last winter.

Will getting arrested keep me from attending Butler?

De Leon, then a senior in high school, was planning to participate in a sit-in protest in Washington, D.C. in January to lobby senators to approve a “clean” Dream Act, or one that creates a pathway to citizenship for immigrants without adding additional stipulations.

Would being arrested for civil disobedience, she wanted to know, affect her eligibility to attend Butler—and her Lilly scholarship?

Ramsay talked to her supervisor: De Leon’s admission decision wouldn’t automatically be rescinded, but any disciplinary infraction would be reviewed by a committee. (Butler later issued a statement reading: “Applicants to Butler University who respectfully engage in meaningful and authentic discourse regarding important issues within our society will not be penalized in the admission process”).

“I told her to be safe, be smart, and listen to her gut,” Ramsay says.

De Leon ultimately decided to stop short of being arrested—though some of her fellow protesters were.

“I felt like me going and protesting was enough at that moment,” she says.

De Leon’s passion for civic engagement started at Crispus Attucks High School on the northwest side of Indianapolis. She was a community ambassador for the Central Indiana Community Foundation, researching Indianapolis’ Hispanic and Latino communities to discover their biggest challenges. She interviewed student DACA recipients, as well as police officers who worked in the Hispanic community.

She also volunteered with the Domestic Violence Youth Network and became a leader of Crispus Attucks’ NO MORE Club, which raises awareness of teen dating violence and sexual assault.

But De Leon wanted to do more than just join a club. Why, she wondered, did Indianapolis Public Schools not have a teen dating violence prevention and response policy?

According to a 2017 Indiana Youth Institute Report, one in eight high school students said they had been “forced to do sexual things they did not want to do by someone they were dating or going out with.” That’s higher than the one in 10 national average.

De Leon worked with Lindsay Stawick, the Youth Program Manager at the Domestic Violence Network, and three other students to draft a policy. It took eight months.

When the policy was enacted at IPS schools this fall, it was the first teen dating violence prevention and response policy in Indianapolis, Stawick says. It holds school staff accountable for preventing abusive behavior and punishes students who participate in it. It also mandates training for teachers and places a teen dating abuse advocate in every IPS school. 

That policy was possibly De Leon’s most significant achievement at Crispus Attucks, but she didn’t wait until her senior year to get involved with organizations she was passionate about.

She began volunteering at TeenWorks, an Indianapolis college-and-career readiness and youth employment nonprofit serving at-risk Marion County teens, her freshman year of high school.

TeenWorks President and CEO Tammie Barney says De Leon can reach the students in a way the adult volunteers can’t.

“It’s rare to see that level of boldness and leadership in such a young person,” Barney says. “She seizes the day to get the most out of every opportunity.”

Her go-getter attitude is one the reasons De Leon says Butler has been a perfect fit.

“I’ve learned that Indy is a city where if an opportunity isn’t there, you can create it,” she says.

 

A DIY Education

Just because her parents didn’t speak English doesn’t mean they weren’t her fiercest academic cheerleaders, De Leon says.

They accompanied her to the many college preparation programs she’d enrolled in as a show of support—even though they couldn’t understand what her instructors were saying.

When De Leon graduated from Crispus Attucks last spring—the first in her family to graduate high school—her parents, two younger brothers, and younger sister were all there to see her walk across the stage.

She gave the second half of her salutatorian speech in Spanish to honor her parents. She was proud to be a role model for her siblings, and the ear-to-ear smiles on her mom’s and dad’s faces said it all.

Her mom’s mantra growing up—and one that De Leon included in her personal statement for Butler—was that her daughter’s U.S. citizenship wouldn’t matter if she didn’t pursue an education.

So De Leon networked like her life depended on it in high school, printing professional business cards and job-shadowing mentors. She knocked out a semester’s worth of college credits from dual-credit courses before ever arriving on the Butler campus.

But sweetest of all?

A full-tuition, four-year Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship, which 143 Indiana students from the state’s 92 counties receive each year. Scholars must be leaders, civically engaged, and academic all-stars—all boxes De Leon checked.

But she didn’t think she had a chance at the scholarship after she found out the valedictorian had also applied.

“We thought only one of us was going to get it,” De Leon says. “But then we both got it, which is crazy!”

 

Look Out, Joe Hogsett

When former first lady Michelle Obama spoke in Indianapolis last February, De Leon was in the audience. The quote that stuck with her?

“If there’s not a chair at the table, bring your own.”

That’s what De Leon is trying to do at Butler; The Political Science and Critical Communication & Media Studies double major recently established a Latino chapter of Butler’s Leading Women of Tomorrow initiative, a group focused on empowering women to seek public service careers. She applied to be vice president or secretary.

She was asked to serve as president.

And De Leon continues to volunteer with the organizations that triggered her passion for activism four years ago.

She’s a mentor with the Domestic Violence Youth Network, where she volunteers twice per month and during breaks, and she plans to continue to help with TeenWorks events this summer, from conducting mock interviews to providing resume advice.

De Leon’s goal is to work in politics after she graduates in 2022. She’d love to be the president of a youth-focused nonprofit organization like TeenWorks, but she’s also considering a run for mayor of Indianapolis.

Look out, Joe Hogsett.

Maria De Leon
UnleashedStudent Life

Maria De Leon: A Lifelong Activist

As a daughter, student, and mentor, first-year Maria De Leon works hard for herself and others. 

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