Jenni Carlson: Only a few days after OU’s biggest win of the Brent Venables era, a hard-earned, come-from-behind victory over Texas, the Sooners gathered at the indoor practice facility to construct bunk beds for foster families and families in crisis
NORMAN — Walter Rouse helped wrap together pieces of wood only a few screws short of becoming a bunk bed, then load them into trucks.
OU’s starting left tackle watched his Sooner teammates doing the same. They repeated the process dozens of times, filling big trailers with headboards and frames and rails and slats, and that’s when the gravity of their bye-week community-service project hit Rouse.
Hundreds of kids in crisis were going to get beds.
“That’s the most rewarding part,” Rouse said.
Only a few days after OU’s biggest win of the Brent Venables era, a hard-earned, come-from-behind victory over Texas, the Sooners gathered at the indoor practice facility. Instead of running plays and doing drills, they used drills and other power tools to construct bunk beds for the 111 Project. The group provides support to foster families and families in crisis.
OU football partnered with the 111 Project through its SOUL Mission, a player development program implemented by Venables.
“We often quote Martin Luther King: ‘Everybody can be great because everybody can serve,’” said Josh Norman, a former Sooner wide receiver who is now the director of SOUL Mission.
“Having a heart of service to serve others who might not be able to serve themselves or who just need a little hand, just need a little help, if we can all take on that mentality, we can all be champions. We can all be great.”
A year ago, the Sooners did bye-week service by partnering with several agencies in Norman, including Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels. But this season’s bye-week project was more than a year in the making. It started with a phone call to Norman at SOUL Mission from Bree Cruz, regional manager with the 111 Project. She pitched the idea of a massive bunk-bed build, and he liked the idea.
OU coach Brent Venables. (Chelsea Weeks/111 Project)
But how would they do it?
For months, Cruz and her team at the 111 Project worked on a plan. Normally when they do a build, they complete a couple of beds. Five or six at most. With more than a hundred football players plus coaches and support staff, the Sooners would be able to do lots more beds. But doing so efficiently would be a challenge.
Cruz and Co. ultimately fabricated work tables that would allow an assembly-line process.
Nearly the entire football field in OU’s indoor practice facility was covered by thick red plastic sheets with nearly two dozen work tables scattered around. Outside, 80,000 pounds of lumber was stacked waiting for assembly.
“The biggest thing we’ve ever done,” Cruz said.
It was so big that they gave the event its own name: Build a Bunk.
Cruz said beds are often the biggest barrier to foster families welcoming more kids. Most of the families have the resources to foster, but when they are asked to take siblings — sometimes several of them — the family may not have enough beds.
A bed provided by the 111 Project can be a difference maker.
But Cruz believes the beds constructed by the Sooners could make an even bigger impact.
“There are kiddos on the other side of these beds, and these are kids that didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “They’re kids that want to feel seen and known and valued, and for us to hand make a bed for them … when you feel valued, all of a sudden you feel like you can take on a whole lot more.
“You feel like you can walk through a harder season when you know that somebody cares for you.”
Linebacker Dasan McCullough glues wood during the OU football team’s bunk-bed build. (Chelsea Weeks/111 Project)
An engraved plate was attached to each bed made by the Sooners.
This bed was made special for you by the 2023 University of Oklahoma Football Team #129.
The Sooners added something else, too, writing hand-written notes that will be given to the children who receive the beds.
“Left it somewhat broad,” Sooner defensive end Ethan Downs said of the notes, “but a message to motivate and inspire — ‘Here’s a bed, hope you enjoy. The Sooners are thinking about you.’”
Norman said, “For us, this is really about long, long lasting impact for something that’s gonna last a long time. I tell the guys all the time, when we serve, we want it to be an inside-out approach of service.
“But what I’ve seen in the two years is that whenever they do it, there’s always an outside-in transformation.”
The Sooners who helped construct the two-tier bunk beds say they were impacted. They had a goal of building 250, and while they fell short of that — the final total was around 140 — they realized they still helped nearly 300 kids.
And they did it the same way they beat Texas last Saturday: together.
“We’re always breaking it down in huddles to, ‘Family!’” Downs said. “Who we are on the field and off the field as a family is important.
“It brings us closer together as teammates and as a family.”
Dillon Gabriel (center) helps teammates moving lumber during the team’s bunk-bed-building service project. (Chelsea Weeks/111 Project)