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Veterans are recognized before last September’s Chi-Hi football game against Rice Lake at Dorais Field. Tonight will mark the Chi-Hi football program’s seventh Veterans Appreciation Night, an event that has gotten bigger each season.

CHIPPEWA FALLS — A conversation with a friend sparked an idea.

An afternoon on the lake helped bring that idea to life.

The Chippewa Falls High School football program is hosting its seventh annual Veterans Appreciation Night at 7 tonight at Dorais Field during the Cardinals’ game against Eau Claire Memorial. All veterans will receive free admission to the game, can receive complimentary refreshments before the contest and will be recognized before kickoff.

In conjunction with the Veterans Appreciation Night, the Chi-Hi football program is collecting new and gently used items to help homeless veterans in need.

Longtime Chi-Hi football coach Chuck Raykovich learned of the plight facing many veterans from college fraternity brother Scott Marrier, who works with The Hands Foundation, an organization that helps many in need including homeless veterans. Then one day while out on the lake, he started to piece together what his team could do to help.

“Normally when I’m ice fishing I’m thinking about football (and I was thinking about) how we could help Scott out and I came up with this idea of the veteran’s appreciation night and tying it in with a clothing drive and etc. and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger,” Raykovich said.

The Hands Foundation is a local agency that partners with agencies and efforts like the Veterans Assistance Foundation, Stand Down events and Help-A-Vet to help homeless veterans stay warm and find them housing.

“The best thing of it is some our players have gone over with the Hands Foundation with Scott (Marrier) and his wife to their facility in the Twin Cities and they’ve actually handed out items to homeless veterans which really, really showed the kids that there is a problem,” Raykovich said.

Another big part of the Veterans Appreciation Night is the pregame acknowledgement of service.

“The thing that always hits home is we have our freshman team make a tunnel as the veterans walk onto the field and I don’t think there are many of them in six years that have had dry eyes after they see the guys walk through on crutches, (with) wheelchairs, canes and it’s important for our young people to understand that others have made great sacrifices for them,” Raykovich said.

The team will also hold a “Miracle Minute” fundraiser during today’s game against the Old Abes. Last year, the Cardinals raised more than $2,500 for the cause in addition to the clothing and items accepted.

The impact of the football program’s efforts have been felt as far away as the Twin Cities, where Marrier has told Raykovich that veterans in need there are aware of the Chi-Hi football program and the work they do.

The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach says it’s just a matter of helping those who have already done so much for their country.

“It’s just our way of trying to pay back people that have been so important to our society and our way of life,” Raykovich said.