Good character is a value that’s developed and celebrated in Iowa. Founded in 1997, the CHARACTER COUNTS! organization and its mission to promote their Six Pillars of Character: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. CHARACTER COUNTS! believes that character is at the core of one’s life experience. Values like those reflected in the six pillars can guide good decision making and relationships, and show us the best paths to take throughout life.  In 2015, CHARACTER COUNTS! was transformed into The Robert D. and Billy Ray Center to expand its impact. It is based at Drake University and now serves as a global resource in the areas of leadership, ethics and civility.

CHARACTER COUNTS! continues to be a vital part of The Ray Center’s mission.  Their programming includes the recognition of individuals who show exemplary character and are good role models. The annual “All-Star Evening” does just that. Named after the former Iowa Governor whose career personified civility and respect, the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award is presented at this annual gala. Recipients have included Dan Gable, Fred Hoiberg, Hayden Fry, Dr. Tom Davis, Shawn Johnson, Dallas Clark, Aaron Kampman, Ed Thomas (posthumously), Sandy Hatfield Clubb, Casey Blake, Ashton Kutcher, NASA astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson, and Taylor and Danielle Morris. My wife, Susan, and I were truly honored to serve as honorary co-chairs of this special dinner program in 2014.

CHARACTER COUNTS! and The Ray Center are WINNERS for all they do to lay a foundation for good character in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities across Iowa.  Since 2011, it has been my pleasure, with the support of ABC-TV and ESPN, to contribute tickets to high-profile events for the live auction during the annual “All-Star Evening” and to facilitate the meaningful participation of ESPN which has resulted in appearances by the following personalities: 

2011 – Kenny Mayne. He was an ideal choice to participate in honoring the late Coach Ed Thomas. Kenny had met Coach Thomas during a visit to Parkersburg in 2003 while on assignment for ESPN’s Sunday’s NFL Countdown show. His feature report profiled the legendary small-town, high school football program that had produced four young men playing in the NFL at the time: Casey Wiegmann, Brad Meester, Jared DeVries and Aaron Kampmann. Kenny’s light-hearted approach to the story pointed that if you did the math, New York City would have about 150,000 players in the NFL based on the comparative populations! The 2003 report was given an encore showing at the Character Counts dinner that night as part of Kenny’s wonderful tribute to Coach Thomas.

2012 – Andre Ware. He joined ESPN in 2003 as a college football analyst and commentator. Andre played quarterback for the University of Houston where he won the 1989 Heisman Trophy, and was the first round selection (#7 overall) of the Detroit Lions in the 1990 NFL Draft. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

2013 – Antonio Davis. A stand-out college basketball player at the University of Texas – El Paso (UTEP) where he played for legendary coach Don Haskins, Andre went on to play professionally both in Europe and in the NBA. Working for ESPN as an NBA  studio analyst at the time, Antonio’s presence was special in that he was a former Indiana Pacers teammate of Fred Hoiberg who was honored with the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award at that year’s dinner.

2014 – Mark May. At the time, this College Football Hall of Fame inductee and 13-year NFL veteran was serving as an analyst for ESPN studio shows and college football game telecasts. Mark attended the University of Pittsburgh where he was a consensus All-American, the Outland Trophy winner as the best offensive lineman, and had his jersey retired. Mark’s wife is an Iowa native and she still has family living here.

2015 – Linda Cohn.  She has served as a SportsCenter anchor since joining ESPN in 1992.  In fact, no one in the history of ESPN has anchored more SportsCenter broadcasts than Linda Cohn! Linda has been a pioneering woman sportscaster, and her appearance was especially fitting as she joined in honoring a pioneer in her own right, Sandy Hatfield Clubb.

2016 – Chris Hassel. A native of Muscatine, it was nice to have Chris return to his home state to join countless other All-Stars in honoring baseball great Casey Blake with the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award. Chris launched his sports journalism career in the Quad Cities and worked as a broadcaster in Des Moines serving as sports anchor/reporter at WHO-TV (2007-13), and radio personality at KXNO-AM (2010-13). He was named 2012 Iowa Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Chris joined ESPN in January 2013 and served as an anchor of SportsCenter and Highlight Express on ESPNEWS. He moved to CBS Sports in 2017 where he is now the lead anchor for CBS Sports HQ.  Interesting side note: His middle name is Ryne, given to him by his father – a Cubs’ fan — after 1984 National League MVP, Ryne Sandberg.

2018 – Maria Taylor. Maria serves as a reporter for ESPN’s College GameDay and ABC’s Saturday Night Football.  Her warm and engaging personality allowed her to connect with the honoree, Dr. Peggy Whitson, and other guests beforehand.  Maria very smartly and seamlessly integrated much of what she learned during those pre-dinner interactions into her inspiring remarks later on during the program.    

2019 – Shelley Smith.   It was wonderful to have Shelley continue the long tradition of ESPN/ABC celebrities who have graced “An All-Star Evening to benefit CHARACTER COUNTS!” with their presence.  The recipients of the 2019 Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award were Taylor and Danielle Morris.  Taylor was injured in Afghanistan while serving as a explosive ordinance disposal technician.  He and Danielle were honored for the “courageous way they have overcome insurmountable odds and a lifetime’s worth of challenges.”  Shelley Smith, a five-time Emmy-winning reporter for ESPN, interviewed the Morris’ as part of the night’s program.