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ESPN Launches 'Jocks-to-GIs Direct' Pen Pal Program

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2003 – April 1 marked the start of an e-mail pen pal program between some service members overseas and some of the nation's top pro sports figures.

Household names like Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens, Shaquille O'Neal and Ricky Rudd stand out.

Under ESPN's "Jocks-to-GIs Direct" program, selected service members get the chance to be e-mail pen pals with some of America's greatest pro athletes. Some of their correspondence will also end up on ESPN.com and in ESPN The Magazine.

But for the pen pal program, there's a big catch: The chosen service members must guard the athlete's address like a military secret.

"We're setting up a special mailbox for each of the athletes," said John Papanek, editor in chief and senior vice president of ESPN The Magazine and one of the driving forces behind creating the program.

He noted that the mailboxes could be accessed easily from anybody's e-mail account. "Once we've selected the GI pen pal, we'll give that pen pal the athlete's address," Papanek said. "But we're asking that GI to please keep it to him or herself. We don't want the athletes to be bombarded with e-mail. It's kind of like a secret address, just for the pen pal."

Service members who don't have access to the Internet should ask their buddies to print out e-mails from athletes. Or public affairs offices could print pages and post them in high traffic areas.

However, Ashley Swadel, ESPN communications officer, said, "We'd like to ensure privacy of the corresponding e-mail addresses, so we simply ask that the pen pals are cautious to which computers they use, so as not to accidentally release the addresses or make them accessible to others."

Papanek said the idea of connecting major American pro athletes with GIs engaged in the Operation Iraqi Freedom and other overseas contingencies evolved from an idea proposed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Logistical problems prevented ESPN from getting the program up and running when Enduring Freedom started.

"But as we got very close to Iraqi Freedom's beginning, we reinvigorated the program," he said, noting Pentagon officials were "wholeheartedly supportive of the idea."

Papanek said he and other ESPN officials and editors realized the close relationship between service members defending the country and freedom and the athletes performing on the fields and in arenas throughout the nation.

"They're the same age and they have so much in common with one another," he pointed out. "So we decided that it would be a great idea to put them in touch with one another."

So far, ESPN has firm commitments from 17 people. Besides the NBA's O'Neal, golfer Woods, baseball's Clemens and NASCAR's Rudd, others include Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber, New York Giants; Chamique Holdsclaw, WNBA Washington Mystics; Curt Schilling, Arizona Diamondbacks; Barry Zito, Oakland Athletics; Anson Carter, New York Rangers; and NASCAR driver Jeff Burton. Also taking part are NFL head coaches Jim Fassel of the Giants and Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Many, many more are standing by who want to get involved," Papanek noted. "It's going to be a question of how many we can manage without getting the whole program flying out of control."

A March test to iron out any wrinkles in the program yielded about 500 replies from an invitation for pen pals during an 11-hour period.

"We can't set up a pen pal for every single GI," Papanek noted. "We made it clear that we're going to be selecting GIs from the many that applied to be pen pals with the athletes."

A group of ESPN.com editors have read all the service members' applications, which now number in the thousands.

"We've read them all and have made selections based on the quality of the correspondence," Papanek said. "We're trying to pick out a good mix of interesting people with stories to tell. We also consider GIs who have mentioned interest in a particular athlete."

He pointed out that some of the pen pals already have relationships with some of the athletes. "Some of them went to school with some of the athletes; some have met before; some have played in minor leagues together," Papanek noted. "We're using all those characteristics to pick the pen pal."

Papanek said that a series of 'chats' with athletes will be available on the ESPN Web site for service members not selected as pen pals. And there's another feature called "buzz chats," he noted. "We'll invite all members of the military stationed overseas to talk about topics in sports news, like the opening of baseball season, (the NCAA basketball) Final Four or (upcoming) NBA and NHL playoffs."

Service members can apply to become an athlete's pen pal at http://sports.espn.go.com/chat/sportsnation/story?page=JTGD-030322. Pen pal correspondence is at http://sports.espn.go.com/chat/sportsnation/jockstogis/index.

Applicants are asked to write, in 100 words or less, why they want to be a pen pal. "They submit that, and that's what we use to determine whether or not we can hook them up," Papanek explained.

He said ESPN The Magazine is printing some e-mails from the GIs in the issue that hit the newsstands April 2.

"We're excited about this and we think there are going to be some great stories that are told between these pairs of athletes and GIs," Papanek said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageESPN The Magazine editor in chief John Papanek, left, was a driving force behind creating the pen pal program to give service members overseas a chance to correspond with their favorite pro athlete. He and ESPN.Com's Daniel Dodd read e-mails to athletes from service members. Photo by Sean Hintz, ESPN   
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