Legend has it former Kansas basketball player Luke Axtell once was tardy for a Roy Williams-led workout because he’d lost track of time while duck hunting.
“I showed up 29 minutes late to a 30-minute practice in my waders. I ran every day for the rest of the year after practice for it,” Axtell said.
“Adam LaRoche (buddy and then a future big-league baseball player) was putting a dip in after hunting, took his hands off the wheel and ran his truck into a ditch. Truck sank to the doors. I hitched a ride back (to Allen Fieldhouse) with a KU professor,” Axtell added.
Williams, the Kansas coach at that time, was flipping mad at Axtell, the 6-foot-10, floppy-haired three-point sharpshooter from Texas who played at KU from 1999 to 2001. Of course at the time, during Axtell’s redshirt sophomore season, Williams wasn’t aware that Axtell was late because Axtell had been out honing the outdoors skills he’d someday use in his eventual dream profession.
Axtell, 38, is national director of hunting and fishing for Heroes Sports, a nonprofit organization that connects returning U.S. military service members with sports, the outdoors and an active lifestyle.
Axtell loves his work.
“It’s been an incredible honor. I love what I do,” said Axtell, who while based in Dripping Springs, Texas, helps raise funds to outfit military members with clothes, equipment, food and shelter on fishing and hunting trips to various states. Axtell locates landowners, seeks permission to use their property and takes the military members and veterans on the outings.
“It’s funny because I have never fished or hunted less in my life — what I’m doing is hosting,” said Axtell, a lifelong outdoors fanatic.
“I don’t pick up a pole or gun on these trips. I’m serving, not getting. It’s my desire to give back to these guys, especially new guys who don’t know exactly what they are doing — putting them in position to succeed whether they are hunting or fishing. I’m coaching a little bit, guiding a little bit to put smiles on faces, which is a blessing.”
Axtell — whose NBA dreams were squashed after he left KU in 2001 because of degenerative disc disease in his lower spine — has worked as a youth basketball coach (high school and individual workouts) since leaving KU and is still involved in teaching fundamentals during evenings when he has the time.
Since December, his full-time gig has been with Heroes Sports. The nonprofit based in San Antonio also offers veterans opportunities to play baseball, slowpitch softball, golf, volleyball and basketball. The group lands tickets to take veterans to sporting events and concerts.
“What pushed me in this direction,” Axtell said, “is seeing news stories about suicide rates (of veterans). It broke my heart, man. These are guys and ladies we should be taking care of, who are protecting our country. I made up my mind if I ever got the opportunity to do something, I would. The opportunity came along.”
Axtell met Heroes Sports founder Mike Barker through an Army Ranger friend of Barker’s and agreed to come aboard in December.
“I think anytime you can take someone’s talents and turn them into helping service members and veterans it’s an amazing thing,” Barker said. “As national director of hunting and fishing he has put an upstart nonprofit organization on a three- to five-year operating schedule already in just six months. It’s definitely a testament to who he is. He wants to give back to veterans. He believes in our program. He’s a great asset.”
Brian Keaton, who is a retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class and the national spokesperson for Heroes Sports, says Axtell has a passion for supporting veterans while providing a form of therapy. Many of the veterans participating in Heroes Sports programs are amputees or individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.
“Luke has a magnetic personality,” Keaton said. “He fits well with veterans. He’s a people pleaser in a lot of ways. He’s a server like a soldier. He pulls all kind of strings. He’s pretty gutsy. He’s not afraid. If he wants something for veterans, he goes and gets it. He can raise money. He is a great guy.”
Axtell is not only proficient at fundraising, but in the field.
“He’s a great hunter and fisherman obviously,” Keaton said. “He’d rather do that than sleep. He is extremely kind, patient. He provides a big presence. Most soldiers, veterans, know something about sports. Luke has such a magnetic personality. It’s just Luke. I’m incredibly proud of him. We’ve talked about it. This is something Luke is made for, I think.”
The same Axtell who charmed KU fans by playing guitar and singing solo at the 1998 “Late Night With Roy Williams” is still playing his music as well — sometimes within earshot of those on the hunting/fishing trips.
“Only at campfires,” said Axtell, who along with wife, Monica, has a daughter who is 11 and a son who is 5. As far as storytelling about his hoops career around the fire … he’s an open book willing to discuss his days as a star at Austin Westlake High, his one year at the University of Texas, and ensuing seasons after a transfer to Kansas.
Axtell broke his hand at a KU practice, suffered severe back and ankle injuries and had an undisclosed medical condition that limited his playing time during his KU days.
“I remember it. No way you can forget playing at Kansas, though it seems a lifetime ago,” said Axtell.
He said he still keeps in touch with teammates John Crider and Jeff Boschee, among others.
“When it comes to winning and learning the game, there’s no better coach to play for on the face of the planet than Coach Williams,” Axtell said. “It’s all about the relationships to me.
“I don’t watch much basketball. I do enjoy teaching kids how to succeed whether in basketball or something else. That’s where motivation comes from. If I can help kids get a kid on a trajectory to get a scholarship, that’s a big deal in a kid’s life.”
The work of Axtell and Heroes Sports have saved some adult lives, Keaton stated.
“I was talking to somebody and said, ‘What do you think of Heroes Sports?’ He said: ‘I was going to kill myself that week, then I met Mike Barker.’ Talk about motivation … that was evidence right there we’re doing something right,” Keaton said.
And Keaton noted that Axtell is central to that mission.
“This team … we’re doing something every week keeping veterans involved,” Keaton said. “All a veteran wants is a mission. Luke understands that. I love Luke. What a good heart. He puts everything out there, pays for trips out of his own pocket. We all do. It’s because we know when we have a quality product, everything else works itself out.”
Heroes Sports wants to open a chapter in Kansas. There will be a fundraiser in July in Fort Scott hosted by Axtell’s friend, LaRoche. For information on future events and how to donate, go to heroessports.org.
“It’s a no-brainer for me personally, the contacts I have in Kansas,” Axtell said.
“Everything is free (for veterans). Everything is covered. We have a great product they love. I’ve gotten no negative feedback. We are new and growing fast. I don’t foresee us pumping the brakes. Kansas makes sense for us.”
Prior to the July fundraising event in Fort Scott, Axtell will be all over Texas, Indiana, Louisiana and other states monitoring the Heroes Sports hunting and fishing trips.
“Heck no,” Axtell said, when asked if he has any regrets that a long basketball career wasn’t in the cards for a guy who had the flash of Pistol Pete Maravich in a much taller frame. “To be where I am and doing what I’m doing … with the family I have, I wake up every day feeling blessed as can be.”