A scholarship from his local Kiwanis club made college possible. Fifty years later, he returned the favor.
By Marc D. Allan
Chad Merling, the treasurer-elect of the Baytown (Texas) Kiwanis Club, was checking the club’s email on April 30 when he found this in the inbox:
Dear Sir or Madam:
I want to make a contribution to the Baytown Kiwanis Club. Fifty years ago, I was awarded a scholarship by the club which I used to defray part of the cost of attending the University of Texas at Austin. I have always been grateful.
Could you let me know what address to use and to the attention of whom my check should be mailed.
“I was assuming it was someone who was going to make a $100 donation or something, maybe a couple hundred dollars,” Merling says. “The first thing I did was to Google his name to see if I could find out who this person was.”
What he found astonished him: Steve Underwood was the just-retired president and CEO of the Tennessee Titans football team.
Merling phoned Underwood and was astonished a second time.
Underwood’s check would be for US$5,000.
In 1970, Steve Underwood was accepted to the University of Texas. He lined up campus jobs to cover his room and board, but he needed money for tuition. About $400.
His dad, a retired linotype operator at the local newspaper, and mom, who had worked for a few years as a licensed vocational nurse, were living on a small pension and Social Security.
“I would have felt badly even asking them for money,” Underwood says.
Then one day, completely out of the blue, he got a call from a representative of the Baytown Kiwanis Club who said the organization was awarding him a $400 scholarship. Underwood hadn’t applied for any scholarship, and he doesn’t remember the caller’s name — only that he was in charge of the docks at the Baytown oil refinery. The club’s records don’t have that information.
The man said he would send him a letter confirming the scholarship and told him, “When you get to Austin, the money will be there for you in the financial aid office.”
“I suspect one of the reasons they selected me for a scholarship was they knew my family was not going to be in a position to help,” says Underwood, whose family had no connection to the local Kiwanis club. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me. It was not just timely; it made a difference in whether or not I would be able to pull it off.”
Underwood worked his way through Texas with jobs in the cafeteria ($1.25 an hour) and as a referee for intramural sports ($5 a game), plus summer work at the refinery ($2-$2.50 an hour, plus overtime).
He finished in three years, then moved on to law school at the University of Houston. After graduating in 1977, he took a job with Caldwell & Hurst, a small law firm whose clients included K.S. “Bud” Adams Jr., the owner of the Houston Oilers football team.
You have to remember, Underwood says, that professional football was much smaller in 1977 than it is today. The NFL’s TV deal was comparatively small. Tickets for games were relatively inexpensive. Player contracts were fairly straightforward, labor relations uncomplicated. They had only a sporadic need for lawyers.
As the league grew, so did Adams’ need for Underwood’s services. In 1991, he went to work for Adams full time, ultimately becoming senior executive vice president/general counsel/chief operating officer before retiring the first time in 2011. Among his duties, he was integral in the franchise’s move from Houston to Tennessee, which began in 1995 and took four years to complete.
In 2015, two years after Bud Adams died, Adams’ daughter, Amy Strunk, asked Underwood to rejoin the team as president and CEO. He stayed on for another five years and is now a part-time consultant.
“Very few people have careers that span four decades in our business,” Underwood says. “I am so grateful to the Adams family for the time they employed me and trusted me with their business.”
In the last year or two, Underwood, who turns 70 in October, and his wife, Frances, had been updating their wills. He had intended to leave a bequest to the Baytown Kiwanis Club for the financial kindness that had made it possible for him to start college. But he decided that sending a check now might be better.
“The reason I wanted to give back is because something had been given to me that was at least a somewhat significant event in my history,” Underwood says. “I believe we have an obligation to give back, particularly if we’re in a position to do that. And who knows? There may be three or four kids in Baytown now who are deserving of help, and I’m confident that the club will find them.”
Sandy Denson, the club’s incoming president, remembers when Merling broke the news. “He came to the board meeting and just kind of smiled and said, ‘Y’all aren’t going to believe what we got in the mail today.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding?! That’s incredible! That’s fantastic!’”
Denson said Baytown Kiwanis typically awards $15,000-$17,000 a year in scholarships. The money comes from an annual apple sale and a gosh (golf/fishing) tournament. This year’s awards have already been presented, so scholarships from Underwood’s donation will be distributed in 2022.
But this story is bigger than money, Merling says. “It has really energized the club. We talk every year about wishing we could see where the scholarship recipients go in life. We talk about that because you give them the scholarship and they’re very appreciative and they go on. You know that you’re doing good when you do that, but you don’t usually get to see it. So to be able to see it in somebody who turned out to be a big-time NFL executive, it’s a neat story for the club to experience.”
This story originally appeared in the October/November 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.