This time of year, preseason exhibition games are scheduled all over the state. They might not seem like a big deal – they’re just exhibitions, a chance to tune up before the real season starts.
But in Rhode Island, they’re bigger than a lot of people realize.
The majority of the exhibitions are labeled as Injury Fund games. Founded in 1946, the Injury Fund is a program that pays medical bills for Rhode Island Interscholastic League Athletes who are injured while playing their sport. Last year, the fund received roughly 350 claims and paid out $144,000.
It’s a program that’s unique to Rhode Island, and it’s built on the strength of those preseason games. All proceeds from those games are donated to the fund, and teams that participate in an Injury Fund game are then eligible for its benefits.
“I can’t say enough about it,” said Ted Stebbins, the treasurer and former president of the fund. “It’s really a great thing and there’s nothing like it anywhere else.”
The organization had humble beginnings. The late Ed Stebbins, Ted’s father, was a legendary football coach at Cranston High School. In 1946, one of his players, Russell Smith, was badly injured in a game. He had to be transported to a hospital in Boston, and his family didn’t have a lot of money.
“My father started doing fundraisers all around Cranston and then he came up with the idea of having four football teams get together, packing the stadium and putting all the money toward his player,” Ted Stebbins said. “High school football was very popular then and it was a big deal. After that, he started to suggest to other coaches the idea of running a round robin in case something happened again.”
From there, the Injury Fund was born, and it’s grown exponentially since. It expanded from just football to include other sports in the 50’s. When girls’ sports gained traction in the 1980’s, they were included too.
“Since that time, the Injury Fund has paid the medical bills of thousands and thousands of high school athletes,” Stebbins said. “Anything above what the insurance will pay, the Injury Fund will pay.”
Ted Stebbins got involved in 1964. He was following in his father’s footsteps at Cranston East, and his dad convinced him to get involved with the Injury Fund as well. It’s a cause he embraced.
“I don’t think my father ever envisioned it mushrooming like this,” Ted Stebbins said. “He’d be very pleased to see how successful it is.”
Last year, Stebbins and the board of directors looked at some of their investments and, in an effort to ensure the long-term viability of the program, decided to put a cap of $10,000 on one-case payouts. But that cap doesn’t affect most of the claims, and, overall, the Injury Fund continues to thrive.
“We just wanted to make sure it was going to be safe for a long time,” Stebbins said. “If the economy improves and the numbers look better, then we’ll certainly reduce those restrictions.”
Either way, the Injury Fund will continue paying bills, fulfilling the same unique mission it was founded on. It’s so ingrained that the words Injury Fund have become synonymous with preseason exhibitions.
“We’ve had a lot of coaches and AD’s (athletic directors) come back from national conferences and they say that everybody is so impressed with the program,” Stebbins said. “Other places wish they had something similar.”
This weekend, the Injury Fund will have its biggest weekend of the year – the annual football round robins. Warwick’s event is on Friday at Pilgrim, beginning at 6 p.m.
It’s a chance to see some football – and it’s bigger than you think.
“We really love to see people come out to these events,” Stebbins said. “The money goes right to the kids and the families. We couldn’t keep going unless we ran these games, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”