As I noted in an earlier article, Things Bigger Than Football: The Younger Rooneys:
In addition to the various events they chair and their own private charities, the “Steelers in the Community” page on Steelers.com lists 39 different charities with which the team, coaches, and/or players are involved.
Just by way of comparison I decided to check out a couple of other team websites and see what they list in their equivalent section. The New York Jets list five, including Play60, which all the teams have to be involved with. The Kansas City Chiefs list seven. I looked at several other teams at random, and didn’t find any team that is involved in more than seven or eight community outreaches or initiatives. Some teams were listing individual visits by players to a school. If we go by this metric, what does that mean about Troy Polamalu’s weekly visits to Children’s Hospital during his entire career? Or any number of the other quiet ways members of the organization go about giving back to the community?
…As we move from the top to the lower levels of the organization, is it surprising that we see the same spirit infusing the whole?
The multitude of ways the team participates in community initiatives is listed here. But today let’s focus on “the same spirit” infusing other parts of the organization.
Where else to begin but head coach Mike Tomlin? He sets the tone both for the team and his own family. Since arriving in Pittsburgh eight years ago the Tomlin family have held a turkey distribution at Thanksgiving. Part of Tomlin’s rationale is to convey to his children the importance of giving back:
“First it’s an honor and privilege to give back to the community I live in and share my blessings with them,” said Tomlin. “It’s also an opportunity for me to teach that value and instill that value in my kids by doing it with them. I think that is the most rewarding element is watching their understanding and attitude toward it grow over the years. It’s been awesome.”
Tomlin’s wife Kiya, son Mason and daughter Harlyn were on hand, working hard handing out the turkeys, and offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum joined in, passing out boxes filled with everything needed for Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s important to do because I want those people to know I relate to their present circumstance,” said Tomlin, who took time to shake hands, pose for pictures and just get hugs from thankful recipients. “I come from a similar circumstance. They can live out their dreams. We are not aliens. We are just people that have been blessed and taken advantage of opportunities. In order for them to gain that understanding you have to make yourself accessible. They have to be able to reach out and touch you and communicate with you. I understand that and embrace it.”
But this is only one facet of the work Coach Tomlin is involved in. He is an NFL Spokeman for Tony Dungy’s organization All Pro Dads:
We are a group of people passionately committed to bringing intentional focus to fathers around the world. Our message will inspire you to embrace who you are, give you tenderness of heart, and boldness of character as a dad and husband. We are consistently here for you to provide guidance and practical tips in raising your kids in a life giving way.
He and wife Kiya are 2013 recipients of the Chuck Cooper Foundation Career Achievement in Leadership Diversity and Community Service Award. In an article written by Teresa Varley of Steelers.com, she noted:
The Foundation’s goal is to help further the education of students in the Pittsburgh area, something that is a passion for the Tomlin family as well.
As Kiya Tomlin said in her acceptance speech (Mike was off at an NFL ownership meeting:)
[W]e just feel like we are doing what we are called to do. We are greatly blessed personally and professionally and giving back goes with that…We want to help [make the city and the educational system better] not only for myself living and working here, but we are the parents of three kids and Pittsburgh is a significant portion of their upbringing. As members of the community it’s our job to make it the very best that we can make it for them and others.
If you want to read more about who Chuck Cooper is and about the foundation (and for that matter see a beautiful picture of Kiya Tomlin) you can check out the article I wrote at the time for Behind the Steel Curtain. The original Steelers.com article is no longer available.
Mike Tomlin’s interests in community involvement are diverse, and had their roots in his years at William and Mary, where he majored in Sociology:
David Aday, a professor of sociology and American studies at the College, taught Tomlin in two courses and said he remembers the former student well.
“He was an eager and thoughtful student, deeply concerned about problems of crime and education, and dedicated to helping young men who are at risk, especially as victims of and participants in crime,” Aday said. “He was one of those students I remember because he took such an active role in those courses.”
Tomlin runs a summer football camp in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Prior to the camp last July Tomlin said:
“Football has been a blessing to me and all who work this camp, and to have an opportunity to come back and share those blessings with the next generation and maybe encourage or inspire them, that’s what we’re hunting,” he said. “Whether or not football is their passion, like it is for us, really is irrelevant. We just want to encourage these guys to live out their dreams and chase them.”
Prior to the camp Tomlin took part in a fundraiser which assures the camp is free to the 500 youth who take part. There’s a great video on NFL.com of Tomlin at camp, alternately interacting with the kids and talking about the importance of “staying connected with the youth.” You can view it here.
Let’s look at some of the player-driven initiatives. One of the first times I heard of this was an article I saw on then-Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley, early in my fandom. I have loved him as a man every since, although his career as a player has been somewhat less than satisfactory since he got a big contract extension for which the Steelers are still paying, via the salary cap.
What impressed me about Woodley is that his heart for community service didn’t start with some NFL or team-mandated project, but began while he was still in college. As I wrote in an article on Behind the Steel Curtain in 2013:
Giving back through sports is also a passion for OLB LaMarr Woodley. But long before he started giving and raising money to keep school sports free to the participants in his native Saginaw, Michigan, he began a tradition of driving to his hometown for Thanksgiving and giving to those in need. Last November his foundation gave out 500 baskets filled with basic household items – paper towels, detergent, cutlery, and so on. Woodley and members of his family were among the volunteers distributing the baskets.
This barely scratches the surface of what his foundation does for his communities—Pittsburgh as well as Saginaw. Woodley also hosts a free football camp for 500 kids each year in Saginaw, and he heads up a Toys for Tots holiday drive in Pittsburgh. Beyond this, Woodley takes his status as a role model extremely seriously. His “Think Big, Dream Big, Live Big” initiative provides SAT and ACT tutoring, encourages clean-up programs and urban renewal, provides college scholarships, assistance with goal-setting, and a long list of other critical programs for underprivileged teens. His foundation has also begun a PACT program (“Prevent Another Crime Today”) which encourages community support for victims of violent crime, including encouraging people to come forward with information which will help to identify the perpetrators.
This is only a partial list of the many causes he espouses, and, astonishingly, he didn’t wait until he entered the NFL before he began giving back. He and Clifton Ryan, another Saginaw native, teamed up while students at the University of Michigan to hold a golf outing to raise money for the Saginaw Parks and Recreation department. They still do this every year.
This is how things should be. Woodley was giving not out of his abundance (and that’s great) but at a time when it wasn’t easy, and he gives of his time and himself rather than just write a check. Most of his programs are on-going. A quick look at his stats says this is probably his last year in the NFL—he has one sack this season, and was just placed on injured reserve—but no one can take away from him how he has used his NFL platform. It will be interesting to follow his “life after football.”
As far as current Steelers go, an article on Steelers.com last week narrated a number of individual and group initiatives. Some of them feature those we know to be involved in the community, such as William Gay.
In fact, most of what Gay does is directed to education about domestic violence and support for shelters and so on, not too surprisingly. But he took a little time off in his home town of Tallahassee, Florida to hand-deliver 22 Thanksgiving baskets to local families. He said he had never done this before, and found it a really amazing experience:
“It was fun,” said Gay. “I was glad the bye week fell on the week before Thanksgiving so I could go and personally knock on doors and see the family’s faces and put joy in some people’s lives. I never did it before. It was the best thing I could do. To go knock on doors when people didn’t expect it.”
Gay said the best part about it was the reaction from the recipients, and it made him know he did the right thing.
“Some people cried,” said Gay. “One lady told me it was a blessing from God. She had taken in kids of a friend because a friend was going through some problems. She was feeding them and spending her Thanksgiving money. She didn’t think she would have a big Thanksgiving dinner and then I came to the door. That almost made me cry.
“It lets you know it’s real, God is real, for it to line up like that was special. It was fun, everyone was laughing. That was the best experience I ever had passing out turkeys. I am going to do it again next year.”
Markus Wheaton gave out 300 turkeys in his Arizona hometown, something he has done before. He also found it both wonderful and heartbreaking, seeing some of the people he grew up with:
“They shaped me. The people there really helped me,” said Wheaton. “I saw a lot of people I knew, people I grew up with, some of the teachers that taught me.
“It’s tough to see them in that situation, the situations they are in. Then again it’s nice to be able to help them out.”
Maurkice Pouncey thought big, opened up Stage A/E, and distributed 200 meals to Northside families, with the help of friends, family and teammates. He has been doing this for several years. Will Johnson and Mike Mitchell teamed up to provide meals for over 200 families in Hazelwood. Johnson and his wife began this last year and he corralled Mitchell to help out this season. As Mitchell said:
“I actually had a lady tell me that this made her Thanksgiving,” said Mitchell. “She is going to be able to cook for her family. That in a nutshell makes this awesome. That is what God has called us here today to do. Every person should want to help the next man. If you have it, you should give it. I am no different. I just want to do my part to help people.
“It’s really about love. Just to show people love by helping them with a good meal, you can make them feel better about themselves, make them realize there is someone out there that cares about them. There are a lot of people in those situations that feel alone because of the hardships on them. They feel all alone. It’s just about helping them and giving back.”
There are so many more things than Thanksgiving drives. A great many of the players have their own foundations to espouse various causes important to them, from DeAngelo Williams and breast cancer awareness to Ben Roethlisberger donating police dogs. Cameron Heyward has taken over Brett Keisel’s central role in the Cystic Fibrosis fundraiser. Will Allen has his “Quest for Real Life Success” as the core mission of his foundation, helping kids from poor neighborhoods to get the help they need to compete.
And these things aren’t always, or even necessarily, done by highly compensated players (in NFL terms.) It is easy to forget that there is always the possibility any of these players could sustain an injury which would not only mean their NFL career was over but might make it difficult to work at anything. The money they make in their few years in the NFL might have to sustain them for a long time afterwards. Nonetheless, many of them believe they have an obligation to give back.
For example, Arthur Moats says he and his wife have purposed to give at least 10% of their income, over and above their support of their church, to things they feel are important. As a recent ESPN article notes:
“Every year, we’ll set a budget out,” Moats said about his financial process with his family, which he calls frugal when it comes to long-term saving. “We’re making this much, how much do we want to donate? Then we decide on a number — who do we want to have an impact on? What can we do to spice it up since we have more money to donate? Then we pray about it, bounce some ideas off each other.”
Cutting a check seems impersonal. Moats is invested in his target areas for donation. He remembers being a young college kid with no money, and the way he sees it, JMU helped mold him into a stable adult.
They recently made a substantial donation to their alma mater, James Madison University:
Moats and his wife Shonda have donated $300,000 to the University, a portion to be used for endowed scholarship for the university’s studio art program as well as a full scholarship level annual fund gift to the JMU Duke Club. A significant portion will support JMU’s fundraising efforts for a new Convocation Center, and as a thank you the strength and conditioning area in the Plecker Athletics Performance Center will be named in honor of the Moats Family.
“Getting a new contract this season, I felt like we were able to do more with our contributions this year,” said Moats. “We always donate to James Madison. I felt like this year I wanted to make a statement and try to get more people aware and enthused about donating back to their colleges, in particular James Madison since it’s my school.
“It shows my kids if you get in a situation where you can, it’s all about helping out. I know the donation is going to help not just the school, but the community as well because of the revenue, job creation and different events they will be able to have at the new convocation center.”
And Moats isn’t just giving money. He and his family went over to the Ronald McDonald House (an apartment complex for the families of gravely ill children being treated at Children’s Hospital) and baked and decorated sugar cookies with the kids able to participate and their families.
A group from my church makes a meal for the families at the Ronald McDonald House once a month, and these sorts of events are so important to the people there. You can see how isolated they are, how fearful they are for their children, and how difficult it is for the siblings, who would love something, anything, that feels like a normal thing to do. Making some cookies may not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal for these families.
Perhaps during the off-season I will make the attempt to figure out all of the different ways the players make a difference in the lives of others. More than anything, I would love to see us honor these men not just for their natural gifts and their work ethic and accomplishments on the field but for the things they do to make the world a better place off of it.
It seems as if all we hear about are the guys who get in trouble, who act as if they are bigger and better than everyone else, who have no time for the world around them. It’s easy to be selfish and entitled and act as if the world owes you whatever you happen to want. But the men I’ve profiled today and the many more like them are the real story.
It’s front page news when the Johnny Footballs of the world go out partying when they ought to be studying and appear determined to live out their own personal Greek drama. But how much better to contemplete those who want to make the world a better place. To all of that sort of young man, to their families and those who helped them to grow up to be real men, thank you from the bottom of my heart. May the seeds they plant take root and help all of us to seek a purpose larger than our own self-gratification.