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UConn fans turn hot sauce challenge on social media into worthy fundraiser

A diehard UConn basketball fan ignited a social media driven hot sauce challenge, leading to a fundraising effort that generated almost $12,000 in less than two days.

"I didn't expect all this to happen," said Bryan Jackson, a 2006 UConn graduate and Hebron native now living in the Boston area.

Credit Jackson and his fellow generous Husky fans as well as Kevin Solomon, one of the founders of the Husky Ticket Project, for what's transpired.

They're behind the hot sauce challenge that in the first 34 hours raised $11,545 from 270 donors for the Husky Ticket Project, a non-profit organization that purchases tickets for youth groups for UConn basketball and football games.

The numbers are still climbing.

"It has taken on a life of its own," Solomon said. "Leave to UConn fans for the crazy people that they are to turn something so weird into something so positive."

It all started on Jan. 5 when Jackson, whose Twitter handle is @BpenfieldJ, posted a tweet vowing to drink a spoonful of hot sauce if UConn rallied from an 18-point deficit to win at Marquette.

"Not that I didn't think they'd be able to come back, but it was more like an offering to the basketball gods," Jackson said. "If this is possible, I'll do this in payment for the comeback win."

When UConn roared back and won, Jackson followed through and posted a video of himself performing the painful deed.

The hot sauce craze took off from there.

People began posting videos taking their own hot sauce shots, some to hold themselves accountable for doubting the Huskies and others to celebrate wins.

Jackson continued his new ritual and posted another video on Monday when UConn played at DePaul. This time, he poured hot sauce on a banana and ate it.

"I see it as a message for the season," Jackson said. "It piggybacks off some of the other things that have been said. Coach (Dan) Hurley talked about how their practices are a cauldron of intensity, so seems to fit the season. It will be like a cool mantra for the fans. We don't have the ability to go to games this year so it's fun to try to get everyone engaged online. And it feels like you're part of something, even if it's insane."

This is where Solomon enters the story.

Solomon saw the hot sauce craze as an opportunity to raise funds for the Husky Ticket Project, which he runs with fellow UConn graduates Jeremy Longobardi and Kevin Korstep. This year, they purchased an entire section at Gampel Pavilion and filled it with cardboard cutouts of kids.

"I thought, wouldn't it be cool to make this similar to the Ice Bucket Challenge from the ALS fundraiser from a few years ago that went viral," Solomon said. "We could get people to donate $5 for every hot sauce shot they take."

He sent out his first tweet at @HuskyTicketProj about the fundraiser at 8 a.m. on Tuesday and it has taken off from there.

To encourage more people to contribute, Jackson said he would drink even more hot sauce if the fundraising effort hit certain benchmarks, which were quickly reached and then far surpassed.

By late Tuesday afternoon, 80 donors had contributed over $4,000, enough to send more than 400 children to UConn games between football and basketball.

So Jackson will perform his daring feat twice, taking the first spoonful before Monday's game against St. John's.

"I did not anticipate that people were going to donate as much money as they did," Jackson said. "I probably would have set the benchmarks a little higher. I set some goals that I thought would take a couple of weeks at least."

The hot sauce challenge continues to pick up steam.

Jackson has even designed a t-shirt to commemorate the occasion.

"The t-shirt is essentially a hot sauce bottle and then on the label it says, Hurley's Cauldron of Intensity Hot Sauce, with a chili pepper being dunked into a basketball hoop," Jackson said. "I put it out there and if we pick up steam, keep winning, which I think we will, who knows where it goes."

Organizers hope that men's basketball coach Dan Hurley and women's coach Geno Auriemma get involved and take on the challenge.

This wonderfully wacky challenge just may stick around for a while.

"If we can keep this as a season-long sustaining thing, we're going to be able to send a lot of kids to games next year if there are fans in the stands," Solomon said. "That's going to be awesome."

To make a donation, go to huskyticketproject.com.

g.keefe@theday.com

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