When we're not watching, they're still working

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
How powerful it must feel to make 80,000 people, some of them wearing your jersey, ascend from their seats and cheer your effort.

How exhilarating it must feel to be completely surrounded by fans, pumping their fists and screaming their throats hoarse for you.

To consider the massive audience beyond the confines of the arena, the millions watching at home and around the world on television, or those who don't care one whit about your uniform but maybe drafted you in their fantasy leagues, the sensation must be profound.

NFL players affect the way people feel every time they snap up their Riddells and stride onto the field. In many cases, what transpires on Sunday can buoy or ruin a town's mood for an entire week.

Yet some players' greatest accomplishments happen nowhere near a stadium, aren't broadcasted and have only a handful of witnesses.

These moments often are the greatest feats players will achieve as human beings.

Overlooked too often are remarkable acts performed in the community by the same men who garner so much attention for participating in a football game. They help children, comfort the sick and encourage the destitute -- and don't expect any applause in return.

When NFL Charities recently rewarded 89 player foundations $1 million in grants, three of the five organizations it highlighted belonged to AFC East players: Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, New England Patriots tackle Matt Light and New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson.

"I've been blessed to do what I do for a living, but with that I think it's also a tremendous responsibility," Richardson said. "The fact I can show up somewhere and somebody's life can be impacted, at the end of the day that's how we're all going to be judged."

Richardson's jersey isn't the NFL's biggest mover, but the three-time Pro Bowler and lead blocker for five 1,000-yard rushers has sold his share over the years for the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Jets.

One of his jerseys, in particular, symbolizes the influence an NFL player can have on one life.

Christopher, a 9-year-old Kansas boy, was buried in it.

"That's definitely humbling and overwhelming," Richardson said. "It doesn't even seem real. I would never think that I could have that kind of impact on one individual or family.

"You can't even put that into words that you've touched someone's life like that."

Christopher had leukemia. Richardson would visit him at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Christopher, when his health permitted, would attend any event he could for Richardson's organization, the Rich in Spirit Foundation.

On the desk at Richardson's home in Kansas City is a picture of Christopher.

"My philosophy in life is that if you've had a bad day, that's up to you," Richardson said.
"You control how you respond to adverse situations. His picture helps me maintain that perspective. It reminds me how precious life is, how each day could be your last."

What players do through their foundations isn't broadcast around the world. You won't see an endless loop of Terrell Owens highlights from one of his Catch A Dream Foundation events, but when he showed up for a voluntary Buffalo Bills workout last week it was the lead NFL story.

Charitable acts aren't reported nearly as much as the superstar who's arrested for DUI or the malcontent holding out for a new contract.

Both the media and fans are responsible for that. If foundations could figure out a way to institute a point spread or create some sort of charity fantasy league, maybe that would change.

But the truth is more football fans will click on a Wednesday injury report -- and probably take the time to post a comment underneath -- than will read this story.

Alexia Gallagher, as director for both NFL Charities and the NFL Youth Football Fund, is familiar with the scores of foundations players have started. She said it's difficult to tell whether some players consider their occupation football or philanthropy.

"You see what they do on the field and that's impressive enough," Gallagher said. "But when you meet them and see what they're doing in their communities and how passionate they are about these charitable causes, they're just put in a different league completely in terms of them being people."

NFL Charities was formed in 1973. Over the years, it has donated $110 million in grants to more than 300 different organizations. Each year, more than $10 million is earmarked for sports-related medical research, youth healthy programs and player foundations.

Foundation grants differ, depending on the level of outreach for the foundations that are chosen.

"These players who were selected really go above and beyond," Gallagher said. "They are fully engrained in these causes and working with individuals at the grassroots level."

A select few receive $50,000 Impact Grants. Pennington's 1st and 10 Foundation was one of them. Pennington set it up in 2003 and remains highly involved. He serves as president. His wife, Robin, is the vice president.

The 1st and 10 Foundation has awarded $750,000 in grant money since 2006. It emphasizes leukemia research and patient-family services and funds community programs in eastern Tennessee (where Pennington is from), southern West Virginia (where his wife is from) and the Miami area.

"As human beings, all we want is a sense of hope and an opportunity," Pennington said. "Any time I can sit down and give my time and lend an ear to people, that's the most gratifying to
me. Whether it's a young child, a senior citizen, whoever it is, what I get out of it most is making sure that we care about their well-being and we're doing all we can to help improve their quality of life."

Free-agent pass rusher Jason Taylor was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year for his charity work in 2007. The Jason Taylor Foundation, specializing in child health care and education, has raised millions of dollars for various South Florida causes.

Taylor, who will turn 35 in September, is nearing the end of his decorated career. He acknowledged last week at his youth football camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., his foundation could maintain a legacy far beyond his playing days.

"You know it'll end eventually on the field of play, but you can always have that impact in the community," Taylor said. "That's what we want to do, build it to the point it runs itself after my playing days are over and continue to grow and eventually move my kids into it."

Richardson is one of the NFL's more recognized philanthropists. He was inspired to get involved as a rookie, spending his season on the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad. He saw how important community service was to future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. Richardson's motivation was reinforced in Kansas City, where Marcus Allen and Derrick Thomas were active givers.

Richardson operates The Dictionary Project, donating them to children in the cities he has played. He has been active in Special Olympics and went on a weeklong United Nations relief effort in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami.

"Some guys want to give back, and it's easy to write a check," Richardson said. "But when you actually show up and see the person and see their situation and communicate with them is what counts. It's the fact that you are there and you do care."

Many athletes are compelled by a sense of duty to use their celebrity stature to give back to the communities that invest in them emotionally and financially.

Richardson told the story of a father who approached him in the frozen-foods section of a Kansas City supermarket to thank him for giving his daughter a dictionary. As Richardson handed them out at her school, he told the children to put their names in them because they belonged to them. The man's daughter slept with hers.

"He started to get teared up," Richardson said of the father. "He said, 'I can talk to my daughter until I'm blue in the face about education, about all this stuff, but that fact that you did, it made an impact.' To me, that's what it's all about."

One of the more amazing aspects of charity work among athletes is how readily they come together to help a brother. There's an unspoken quid-pro-quo bond among them. As tirelessly as they work on their own foundations, they will travel across the country to help a fellow humanitarian.

Richardson, for example, attended Auburn teammate Wayne Gandy's football camp in Haines City, Fla., over the weekend and was in Nashville on Tuesday to attend veteran defensive end Kevin Carter's event for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"A lot of guys are extremely helpful with other charities and are willing to fly places and do events for each other," Pennington said. "Guys understand how important it is. There's a lot of reciprocal work that goes back and forth between players."

That athletes would go to such lengths to help each other underscores how much of a calling charity work can be. There's an element of civic obligation, sure, but if that's all that compelled them, few would remain so highly involved.

The players receive a payoff, too. It usually comes when they connect not with a roaring crowd but with an individual who's in pain or desperate for compassion or simply willing to take advantage of an opportunity to help themselves.

That power can transcend what happens on game day.

"Once you make eye contact and when you sit down and genuinely are interested in what people have to say and in their situation, they can see it," Pennington said. "People can see in your eye whether you care or you're just paying lip service.

"That's what's important; not to hide behind the logo or hide behind an entity and actually get out and talk to the people, be a part of their lives, let them know they're important."