CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University alums Joel and Samantha Sambursky have been selected as recipients of the Missouri Valley Conference's Most Courageous Award. The couple will be recognized during SIU's football game versus SEMO on Sept. 15.
The MVC presents the award to past or present student-athletes, coaches or university administrators who demonstrate unusual courage in the face of personal illness, adversity or tragedy and whose behavior reflects honor on the institution or the conference.
The Sambursky's one-year-old son, Theodore, was born prematurely on April 13, 2017, with a heart arrhythmia. At one month old and just days away from coming home from the neonatal intensive care unit, "Teddy" developed an infection that went to his brain. He underwent multiple surgeries and faced many challenges during his almost four-month long hospital stay. He continues to face and overcome many complications from the infection.
Parents of four children, Joel and Samantha took turns at Theodore's bedside throughout the summer of 2017, traveling back and forth between their home in Carbondale and the St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Their courage inspired a public-awareness campaign called "Tough Like Teddy" that drew hundreds of supporters and well-wishers to a 100-minute workout at SIU's track complex last July to recognize Teddy's 100th day in the hospital. The SEMO football team, led by head coach and former Saluki assistant Tom Matukewicz, also particpated in a 100-yard run at Houck Field in Cape Girardeau.
On Teddy's first birthday, Joel posted a Facebook message to his son, whose condition is much improved. "The last twelve months has shown that we serve a God of miracles, a real savior who reached down and protected you. That despite really hard things happening to you, with circumstances occurring that even with my greatest efforts I won't be able to explain or understand, you are still here…your toughness is ingrained in your DNA. It's who God created you to be, in his own image. No one has had to teach it to you and yet it inspires others. Happy first birthday son."
Joel is a Saluki Hall of Fame member. He played quarterback at SIU from 2002-05. He is the school's all-time passing leader, won 33 games as a starting quarterback and led the team to three conference titles and three playoff appearances. He was a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top player in the FCS, and was the league MVP in 2004.
Joel founded Liberty Wealth Management in 2012 and is a member of SIU's Board of Trustees.
Samantha played for SIU's women's golf team from 2004-07 and was twice recognized by the Women's Golf Coaches Association as an Academic All-American. In 2006, she was the team's top individual performer at the MVC Championship when she placed 7th out of 48 golfers. The following year, she played a key role in helping the team claim the MVC title.
Samantha also won the MVC Scholar-Athlete award in 2007.
"Joel and Samantha are special people," said SIU director of athletics Jerry Kill, who recruited and coached Joel at SIU. "They set a wonderful example of how to be loving parents through both good times and adversity."
"Sam and Joel's strength and faith have inspired all of Southern Illinois," added former SIU women's golf coach Diane Daugherty. "They, and their kids have truly been 'Tough Like Teddy.'"
Previous winners of the MVC's Most Courageous Award at Southern Illinois include baseball head coach Dan Callahan and men's basketball assistant Lance Irvin.