UBC's Cole Keffer got a haircut that went beyond mere cosmetic change. (Wilson Wong, UBC athletics photo)
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UBC’s Cole Keffer: The power of student-athletes to make a difference

VANCOUVER — It was a self-scheduled intervention, completely cosmetic in nature, but somehow Cole Keffer knew that his first real date with a barber’s scissors carried a much deeper meaning.

“This is now me,” the UBC Thunderbirds’ third-year rugby player said Tuesday morning, less than two days after having perhaps the most fabled-and-flowing male locks on campus shorn in the name of cancer research.

“I had to let go of the feeling that the hair was me. Now, there are so many new sensations.”

Outwardly, on a wet Tuesday morning in Vancouver, one of those included the immediacy of pelting rain on a freshly-stubbled scalp.

Yet inwardly, the effect has been so much greater.

Moved by stories of a courageous battle against cancer waged by a young lady whom Keffer admits he did not know well but who attended his former high school in North Vancouver, his desire to try to make some kind of a difference grew stronger and stronger over the past few months.

And it all culminated Sunday evening when Keffer, in front of teammates, friends and family, had his head shaved at UBC’s Gerald McGavin Rugby Centre to raise funds for Childhood Cancer Canada research.

The impact, both through donations and social media engagement, had Keffer speechless on Tuesday morning when he was given the numbers.

Less than 48 hours after he donated his shorn hair to Wigs For Kids B.C., a group providing wigs to kids affected by cancer whose families are financially challenged, he had already surpassed his goal of raising $10,000. (You can donate by clicking here)

Beyond that?

Social media numbers had gone through the roof, with 33,000 Facebook views, 12,500 post clicks and a total reach of 83,000.

“I am shocked,” Keffer said when learning of those numbers. “I couldn’t be happier. When I first set a goal of $10,000, I figured why not shoot for the stars? I knew I had some connections through a lot of the different sports I had played, but those views on Facebook are just unbelievable. Words can’t describe it. It’s just ‘Wow.’”

A STUDENT-ATHLETE DEFINED

If Cole Keffer’s impact can be measured in one way, it’s in the power university student-athletes have to affect positive change.

In Keffer’s case, it’s all about putting on the blue-and-gold of the Thunderbirds, representing the daily duality of being both a high-level athlete and post-secondary scholar.

That commitment alone demands our respect.

Yet adding outreach in such a selfless, organic manner — one in which a person is willing to sacrifice such a major part of their own identity for the betterment of others — is ultimately what touched us all.

“The whole thing started a few months ago,” Keffer says. “Randomly, thoughts would pop into my head ‘Cole, cut your hair.’ But I just pushed them away because I love my hair. I am my hair. It’s my identity. But the thoughts just kept coming.”

Keffer, a former star multi-sport athlete at Sutherland Secondary, had read the stories of Chloe Kurney, a young lady a few years his junior who also graduated from Sutherland.

Kurney lost her battle with cancer in February.

“I can’t say that I did this in her honour because I didn’t have the appreciation of knowing her too well,” Keffer says. “But she sounded like an amazing girl and it would have been an honour to have known her.

“There was a post of her passing away and it was the trigger,” Keffer continues. “The switch just flicked. My long hair is me, but maybe I could do something for so many kids in unfortunate circumstances, and for the families that have to fight. Like I said, I had to let go of the feeling that the hair was me.”

UBC rugby player Cole Keffer documented his first real date with a barber. (Wilson Wong/UBC athletics photo)

SPREADING THE WORD

At their best, our sporting communities are more than just random collections of parents, coaches and kids.

They can be, as Keffer has discovered, people who have created bonds by sharing pivotal moments in the lives of their children.

In his case, Keffer’s resume as a multi-sport athlete was vast.

Not only had he played rugby in his community for Capilano and represented Canada in national age group competition, but he also starred on both the soccer field and basketball court with his high school teams at Sutherland, helping lead the Sabres to a B.C. Triple A soccer title in November of 2013.

Keffer also helped Canada win the gold medal at the World Junior Ultimate Championships.

“My main sport was ultimate frisbee,” says Keffer. “My parents were always big players and that community has been a very large supporter. The people who I played with, they have been sharing and donating like crazy.”

And of course, there is UBC’s own massive community, headed in Keffer’s case, by the deep-rooted, tradition-laden men’s rugby program, and the school’s athletic department.

UBC’s sports information department, in fact, keeps a close eye on the social media world of its coaches and athletes with the hopes it can help bring the most important happenings to attention of mainstream media outlets. 

“The Thunderbird Athletes Council was promoting our UBC-California rugby game (on Instagram) with a photo of Cole in action,” says Wilson Wong, UBC’s manager of sports information. “They were saying it was the last chance for people to see Cole with his long hair since he was donating it at the end of the month.

“When I first saw the comment, I was happy he was doing something to help others by giving away something that is a huge part of who he is,” Wong continued. “Cole was so passionate about his cause.”

And thus a story with a real message was delivered to the masses, and with it, a reminder to every student-athlete in the province that they have a power to affect positive change in ways they may not have thought possible.

“We think we’re just students and we think we’re just athletes,” begins Keffer. “But if you decide to do something for a cause, any cause, your school will get behind you.

“And it can help with donations, but also, by just getting people talking about the issues and creating awareness, things can just spike and spread right through your campus.”

As Cole Keffer has discovered since Sunday, the real change comes from looking beyond the cosmetic.

“We can have a bigger impact than we think,” he says.

It’s a message for all student-athletes to take to heart.

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