Happy Birthday, Dork
Rob Ukrop — soccer star, kids' hero and a self-proclaimed "Happy Dork" — celebrates 10 years of Chuck E. Cheese birthdays.
Smile at the endless horde of children who thrust forth empty cups like practiced panhandlers to get more jingling tokens to feed to the Skee-Ball games and the basketball games and the racing games, the games that thump and roar all night because the tokens never stop coming and the pizza never stops coming and four cakes promise a sugar buzz for everyone.
A hellish way to spend a birthday, right?
For Rob Ukrop, it's a tradition.
April 5 marked the 10th year that the motivational speaker and retired soccer star celebrated his birthday with a free-for-all party at the West Broad Street Chuck E. Cheese. Ukrop, 36, says he does it for the children. He also asks all comers to donate $1 to the Police Athletic League, an organization that partners police officers with at-risk children for field trips and athletic events.
The event doesn't bring in much money, acknowledges Ukrop, who spends the six-hour party standing at a table in the rear of the room, handing out tokens and grinning for photos. He set a record at this year's party: $692, much of it in one-dollar bills.
Many older kids who attend don't bother to contribute. But Ukrop says he's heartened when he sees small children bring money from their own allowances to add to the league fund. It teaches them that even a dollar can make a difference, he says.
From 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday, the kids keep coming. Many know Ukrop from his 11 years as a high-profile forward for the Richmond Kickers (he retired in 2004), while others remember him from his hundreds of visits to area schools.
They're anxious to tell him about their own soccer victories and, of course, to beg for tokens.
"Can I please have some more?"
"Is it hard to play soccer?"
"Have you seen my mom?"
Emma Monticelli, 7, approaches Ukrop with her sister, Alex, 9. The two stand and stare. "She wants to tell you that she did start playing soccer," says their mother, Joanne Monticelli.
Will Daniel, a 24-year-old with Down syndrome, is one of Ukrop's friends and biggest fans. "He's very funny," Daniel says. "He's really down to earth. … He's got great hair." Ukrop laughs at the joke; his head is shaven.
The Ukrop clan is well-represented. Rob Ukrop's sisters are here, as well as his mother, Jane Ukrop, and father, Bobby Ukrop, the president and chief executive of Ukrop's Super Markets. Sam Ukrop, Rob's dapper 81-year-old great-uncle, is chewing on a piece of pizza. Rob's girlfriend, Janie Bird, brought the girls' varsity soccer team she coaches at Clover Hill High School.
Ukrop's parents can't stay long, because an ebullient Jane Ukrop is dragging her husband to a ballroom dance lesson at a country club later in the evening. "Rob is never going to grow up, but I think I have grown up," she says. "So I'm going to the dance."
Bobby Ukrop grimaces. "I have no rhythm," he confesses.
Before they leave, Jane Ukrop takes a few photos of her oldest son with his young fans. "Hold it, hold it, hold it," she says. "The dork in the middle."
The affectionate "dork" nickname was bestowed upon Rob when he was 23, he says. He was having dinner with his mother and tried a trick well-known to kids: "Would you like some see food, Mom?" he asked, and stuck out his tongue to show her his half-chewed mouthful.
"You are a dork," Jane Ukrop told him. "I told my mom I would be the happiest dork in the world and make her proud," Rob says.
On his Web site, www.happydork.com, he encourages kids to "dream high, work harder, and keep on smiling." The brightly colored site features inspirational stories, soccer photos and a message board — the kids are still talking about the time Ukrop wore his Tigger suit to a local Toys "R" Us. The message board is popular, even if the youngsters post often-incoherent messages:
"hey waz^ you dont know me but u came to my school onee day ya well um seya bye! by a person"
"happy dork I loved your speach at Back Creek I know every thing about you you love chucky chese you have a crumut the frog puppet"
On one occasion, Ukrop reproached the kids for "being really rude and mean" in their postings and "trying to find girls and boys to hook up with." Respect the site or don't use it, he told them.
Ukrop held his first Chuck E. Cheese birthday party on a whim, just for friends, he says. The past couple of years' parties, however, have been "pretty much chaos," he says, drawing as many as 2,800 kids. This year, about 80 pizzas were served and more than 11,000 tokens given out.
Ukrop recently had to specify on the invitation that he was the host, not the chaperone. A few years ago, he says, an angry mother blamed him when she couldn't find her daughter in the throng: "You invited her!" she said.
"No, I invited everyone in Richmond," Rob explained. The daughter showed up soon afterward.
Every year, Ukrop says, he tells himself it's the last time he'll have a Chuck E. Cheese party. But when "you see the gleam in a kid's eye," he says, "you have to do it again." S