A Man Of DistinXion

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zellerproject.jpgTo become a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame, individuals have to embrace the fact that they are not only preparing for success during the four years spent in South Bend, but also for life beyond collegiate athletics as well.

The time spent at Our Lady's University is not a stopping point, but rather a spring board for what is to come in the future.

From the moment that Luke Zeller stepped on to campus, it was apparent that a leader was joining the Fighting Irish family. Throughout his career at Notre Dame, Zeller made a notable impact on those around him, both on and off the court. Whether it was volunteer work within the community or serving as a captain during his senior season in 2008-09, Zeller's ability to lead defined his career as a Notre Dame student-athlete.

His successes did not start in South Bend, however.

When Zeller committed to Notre Dame, head coach Mike Brey knew he was getting a very motivated and skilled basketball player. Zeller was named Indiana's Mr. Basketball as a senior in 2005 and participated in the prestigious McDonald's All-American game. In addition to his athletic achievements, Zeller excelled academically and was named co-valedictorian of his senior class at Washington High School in Daviess County, Ind.

Once he arrived in South Bend, Zeller made the most of his time at Notre Dame, and always instilled positive impressions on those around him.

"Luke is really special," Brey said. "He's one of my all-time favorites because of the young man that he is. He always saw the big picture. While he was playing basketball here, he was always planning for his future and thinking ahead. He's truly a class act."

The future for a collegiate student-athlete is a difficult thing to predict. In addition to potential job opportunities and professional aspirations, individuals need to focus on balancing their academic calendars with their athletic schedules.

For Zeller, he knew the future was going to involve two things that he is extremely passionate about: basketball, and assisting others.

As planned, Zeller has been able to incorporate both of these aspects into his everyday life.

Luke Zeller created DistinXion Basketball Camps in 2010 in hopes of focusing on developing character and leadership skills in children while using sport to teach these ideas. After a proof of concept year, the program was certified in the spring of 2011 and was in operation throughout the summer. The camp is offered to children ranging from second to eighth grade.

The concept for DistinXion came to Zeller during his senior campaign in the Mendoza College of Business, when he entered a business plan competition and submitted his idea for integrating character building skills into a basketball camp setting. The idea was well received by those judging the contest and out of 100 entries, Zeller's was one of 18 to make it to the semifinals.

Most of those who entered the competition accepted the accolades that their idea received and moved on to other pursuits. Zeller, however, was not ready to leave his idea as simply a hypothetical plan; he was determined not to settle until his project became a reality.

Meanwhile, the Irish were not as successful on the court during Zeller's senior season as many had hoped after reaching the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. At one point during the 2008-09 campaign, the team dropped seven BIG EAST contests in a row to fall to 3-8 in league play.

With team morale low, Zeller's leadership was tested more than ever, and similar to any other challenge he had faced up to that point, he answered the call.

"There was always a maturity level for him, and I think your leadership is tested when you go through adversity," Brey said. "I thought he did a great job of keeping the group together, and keeping a positive frame of mind. He knew we were going to get out of it."

Zeller and the Irish were able to turn things around for the home stretch of the season, winning five of their final seven BIG EAST contests to come up just short of an NCAA tournament berth. The Irish played well in postseason action, winning their first three games of the National Invitation Tournament before falling to Penn State in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Following the season, it was time for Zeller to start thinking about life after Notre Dame. The idea of continuing to play basketball intrigued him, as a professional career could also present Zeller with the opportunity to potentially develop his business plan into a reality.

After graduation, Zeller began competing at the international level. He played for Japan's Shiga Lakestars for one season, and competed with Lithuania's Naglis Adakris squad in 2010-11.

During his time overseas, Zeller continued to work on his DistinXion plan and prepared it for a trial run. The idea of the camps seemed to be attractive to young athletes, as well as the participants' parents. The program launched in summer 2011.

Over the course of the summer, 350 students participated in eight camps, and around 20 scholarships were awarded.

"We give out scholarships to any kid on free or reduced lunches that applies," Zeller said. "We also give scholarships to kids with extenuating circumstances, and these grants are funded through our sponsors and donors."

A typical DistinXion camp consists of a full weekend schedule, including events and practices that incorporate both basketball and life lessons.

On Friday night, the program sponsors a family event for campers and their parents. During this time, there are information sessions for the kids, which involve lessons like how to give a proper handshake, a demonstration of table manners, as well as a talk about the acronym for character that Zeller's parents came up with called CHAMPIONS.

The acronym stands for Character, Honesty, Attitude, Motivation, Perseverance, I am responsible, Optimism, Network of friends, and Serve others.

"We go through different acronyms and tell the kids stories of how they apply to their lives and how those concepts can make them successful as a person," Zeller said. "While the kids are able to start working out, the parents listen to my mother and father explain the CHAMPIONS program, and discuss the character attributes that the kids will be learning."

Family has always played a large role in Luke's development, so it came as no surprise that the Zellers were on board to assist with DistinXion.

The Zellers are widely known as a successful basketball family. Luke's younger brother, Tyler, is a senior forward at The University of North Carolina and is averaging 13.9 points and 8.9 rebounds for the third-ranked Tar Heels. The youngest of the three, Cody, is a freshman at Indiana University and leads the resurgent Hoosiers - ranked 12th in the country - with 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

"I don't know if there's a more together and tighter family than the Zeller family, with the three boys, and [parents] Lorri and Steve, who have been such great supporters of their kids," Coach Brey said. "They're the All-American parents." Steve and Lorri Zeller always served as great role models that were able to use sport as a way to teach the necessary life lessons and values to their children. These important messages are communicated within the camps.

At the conclusion of the night on Friday, the parents are reunited with the children, and a family competition begins with the parents and kids playing together. On Saturday and Sunday, the participants are put into groups as they go through the camp and receive CHAMPIONS points throughout the event, tying back to the acronym used to teach lessons about character.

"Like any other basketball camp, we give out points for winning competitions, but we also reward actions that we feel exemplify character; helping a kid up, encouraging a kid that maybe has not been doing so well, or recognizing a kid that has done well, helped a teammate, or demonstrated a good understanding of the material," Zeller said.

At the conclusion of the camp on Sunday, there is another unique twist that the Zellers use in hopes of solidifying the messages shared throughout the weekend.

"We hold press conferences, because the kids have seen NBA players do them," Zeller said. "We set it up and quiz the kids on the character attributes they learned, and also let the parents ask questions. So the parents and the coaches become the media. It is always really neat to see the kids learn and really gain something from that."

Although some see the value of sport strictly as entertainment, it is also commonly used as an avenue to spread an idea or a message. It is the latter of these two philosophies that differentiates sport from anything else. DistinXion has adopted this mindset and shared it with all involved in the program.

"The underlying message is that we want to be able to empower parents, teachers, and coaches. I feel like there are a lot of these individuals who do a great job. We'd like to help them reach an even higher level of potential as role models," Zeller said.

With the foundation built, where does DistinXion go from here?

Although funding does not currently allow it, Zeller would like to obtain a full-time staff at some point while he is still playing professionally. During the 2011-12 campaign, Zeller is back in the states competing with the San Antonio Spurs Development League team, the Austin Toros.

"In the long-term, I would like to continue to go to each city, and be able to meet people in their backyards and where they live," Zeller said. "I would like to have our own facility. We will always be in people's backyards, and continue to take our show on the road, because I believe there is a huge benefit in that - people caring and understanding that you care about them."

Those who know Zeller can attest to this. It is hard to imagine that he will settle for anything less than achieving the goals that he has set for DistinXion. The ability to be a leader is something that he has displayed time after time, and using these skills as an opportunity to improve the lives of others is something that he will always be looking to pursue.

Just a few years ago, DistinXion existed simply as a hypothetical business plan. The plan becoming a reality is a testament to Zeller's leadership abilities, which have willed him to accomplish many of his goals along the way. If Irish fans know anything about Zeller, it is easy to predict the direction in which this program is headed.

Want to find out more about DistinXion Camps? Visit www.distinxion.org.

- Jon Kerzetski

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