Mike Culver

It may be the toughest check that Mike Culver (Col ’06) will ever write—and perhaps the noblest.

Culver, a rookie defenseman for Major League Lacrosse’s Chicago Machine, boldly guaranteed victory for his winless expansion team in its July 29 game against the Los Angeles Riptide, and backed his words by pledging half his salary to charity if the team lost. Chicago’s subsequent 14-8 defeat turned into a win-win situation, however, garnering national attention for his team and an influx of donations for a Chicago-based foundation that funds research on congenital heart defects.

The idea began with a phone call from the Machine’s public relations director, Katie Gotaas. WGN radio—intrigued by Culver’s two-month odyssey from UVA’s 17-0 NCAA championship team to the then 0-9 Machine—sought an interview.

“I figured, how can I translate this into something really positive?” Culver says. He came up with the idea of pledging half his salary in the event of a loss (or a game check if the Machine won), and challenging listeners to match his gift. Together, he and Gotaas researched local charities before settling on the Children’s Heart Foundation as the beneficiary.

In the days that followed, Culver’s guarantee drew national coverage, including an article in SI.com, the online component of Sports Illustrated. His teammates “wholeheartedly embraced it,” he said.

When the game rolled around, Chicago took a slim early lead and remained even at halftime. But the Machine seized up in the second half and dropped its 10th straight game.

Culver’s donation, which he pegs at between $2,800 and $3,000, took a major bite out of his finances. Though most pro lacrosse players have second jobs, Culver did not.

The publicity, however, produced a windfall for the foundation. The Riptide made a donation, as did the Rochester Rowdies, the fan club of the MLL’s Rochester Rattlers. Culver’s Chicago teammates and even UVA coach Dom Starsia chipped in.

Chicago’s play improved, but it still finished the season with two narrow losses, including an overtime defeat against playoff-bound San Francisco in the finale.

For his part, Culver was named in August as the league’s Sportsman of the Year, and in September the Machine hired him as an assistant general manager. More importantly, he learned more about the foundation and its work, and was gratified to see the impact that his guarantee made. “I was so happy to educate myself,” he says.

Happy enough to do it again?

“That may have been my first and last guarantee,” he says. “Once you’ve done the first one, it takes a whole lot of steam out of the second one.”