It's about 'responsibility:' DeAndre Levy's path from silence to social activism

DETROIT -- DeAndre Levy had just gotten off the phone with his mother, and Paula Levy sensed the pain and disappointment in her son’s voice. It was early in the Detroit Lions' season. Levy, a linebacker, was hurt again. He was going to be out for a few weeks, at least, and the return to the field he longed for would be delayed. Again.

When Paula hung up, she went to the store, bought a couple of cards with inspirational messages written inside. Then she added her own words. She had seen the growth in her son the past three years, seen the man he blossomed into.

She wanted him to know, as frustrated as he might be during his recovery from a knee injury, how proud she was of him for the person he had become.

"I don't even think I wrote anything about football in there," Paula said. "It was about how he feels as a person, as our son, we're there for you no matter what you hear out there."

DeAndre Levy wants to play football. He’s rehabbing to return to the field soon. But the year and a half the 29-year-old Levy spent injured changed his world view. For the first time, he lived a life without football dominating it.

It led an admittedly private man who avoids the spotlight to speak out and try to be part of the solution to problems that matter to him and his community. Levy never wanted to become an activist; it just turned into that. He understood his platform as an NFL player. So why not use that to inform people about issues other than football, things that could affect change?

It's why his mom's card, coming at a tough time in football, meant so much.

"That had me in tears, man," Levy said. "Talking about stuff that I've been talking about and how she didn't expect it and she's proud.

"Just typical mother stuff, typical mother stuff. She didn't talk anything about football, and I'm like, 'Aww, mom, I love you so much.'"

Paula and her husband, Rodney, never expected their son’s transformation into one of the NFL’s most socially conscious players. It even surprised Levy himself.

At Wisconsin and during his first years in the NFL, Levy cared more about himself than the larger world. If he was OK, he didn’t need to care. Then he started traveling.

A trip to Rio de Janeiro, where he saw the favelas, gave him a different perspective on poverty, as did a ride to a shantytown in South Africa. The books he read sparked conversations.

When Levy was moving from one home to another, he stopped at a red light and saw a man with no shoes. Meanwhile, the self-professed sneakerhead had boxes of them. The brief encounter made Levy think, and he realized he didn't need all of those shoes. So he decided to auction them off for charity to streamline his lifestyle.

“It was kind of a shift in my life," he said. "It was kind of a conscious effort on my part to put things in proper order in my life. I mean, I wish it was one big 'a-ha' moment, but it was a very gradual thing. Like most things, a very kind of gradual shift for me.

"I'm never here and then suddenly there, you know what I mean? It's kind of a gradual growth, trying to constantly evolve as a human."

Still, Levy shunned attention. He hoped others would speak up instead. He preferred to work behind the scenes. He started writing frequently, and then, gradually, he began speaking out, becoming equally comfortable talking football and real-world issues.

Sometimes, he'd steer conversations from his job to the world in general. He knew that could cause friction. He didn't care.

"People don't like it when an athlete is more than an athlete, particularly if you're a black athlete," Levy said. "'Shut up and play football.' That’s just kind of what people say. They want to keep you in the athlete box, and a lot of guys do it, so they think your success or how good or bad you're playing as a football player means you should or shouldn't say something.

"Our best athletes don't say anything about anything."

Once silent, Levy says the silence now bothers him. He thinks many NFL players "play it too safe." It's one of the bigger parts of his evolution over the past 18 months as he tried to find his place in the world. He wanted to make an imprint larger than football.

And he knew he had the stage to do it.

"I think we try to sell ourselves too much, football players. A lot of guys are more focused on their brand, and more power to them, but there's real stuff happening," Levy said. "I think you have this responsibility; if you are going to sell yourself as this person or that person, whatever your thing is, you're telling people to buy into what you're selling. Let's sell them some good."

He just needed to figure out what his "good" would be.

Levy's 2015 hip injury landed him on injured reserve and gave him time to re-evaluate. Football had been the focal point of everything. That the injury came at the same time his profile began to rise because of a lucrative contract extension was coincidental, but people were listening to him.

"We have a lot of attention. Even the campaign I have for domestic assault awareness month, it wouldn't have half as much attention if I didn't play football," Levy said. "So if I'm here and I'm going to neglect my responsibility to the rest of the outside world, then I feel like I'm failing."

He had been a success in football, but what about his life? He decided if he was going to shift things, he wanted to focus on the world he is involved in every day. He studied the relationship between the NFL, brain trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That led to a series of Instagram posts and a letter to ESPN challenging the league's stances on CTE.

He saw the issues in Detroit, the city he has embraced and "loves" since being drafted by the Lions in 2009. He decided if he was going to have an impact, he wanted to focus on the city and its people.

He started to become more involved with the Detroit Food Academy and Regenerate Detroit by hosting dinners to raise money for scholarships to culinary school because it melded his love of education and food.

"I can't save the world, you know," Levy said. "So you affect your community and change a couple people's lives on a smaller scale, that's more meaningful to me."

Then an issue screamed at him to take a stand on a larger level.

Levy sat in an NFL presentation about domestic violence and sexual assault earlier this year. He heard questions other athletes asked the presenter. He couldn't believe it.

The woman gave hypothetical scenarios. The responses stunned him. Levy started challenging what other men said. He thought back to his past and the times he hadn't spoken up before, including an incident he says he heard about that he now believes was rape while he was in college at Wisconsin. He realized he had to speak up.

"I was like, 'The problem isn't done.' Everybody didn't grow and think kind of like maybe how I have on this topic, but the responses, it was like, 'I have to say something,'" Levy said. "Not only can we educate our grown men better but our boys better, so when they are older they can have a place in the race and the culture."

So Levy wrote a column in The Players' Tribune. He wrote about the Wisconsin incident, one he says "was real." Not speaking up about it at the time bothers him still, years and a lot of education later.

"I have regret about that. Who knows if something would have happened or wouldn't have happened had I stood up and been able to say, 'What they are saying is wrong. This is wrong. This is a crime,'" Levy said. "You don't think to question, because it's the culture, and once you're in the culture, it's hard to step outside of it, see it as anything other than what it is."

That is part of why he wrote his essay. He didn't anticipate the response. Teammates came up to him backing what he stood for. Then something overwhelming happened that he didn't expect.

Victims reached out and shared their stories. They thanked him. He realized he'd hit a real-world problem he could try to change. He researched the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States. The numbers shocked him. He knew he could be a voice, a different type of voice.

"It was a weird feeling, man," Levy said. "I felt so emotionally moved by people telling me things that happened to them, and that was enough in its own, but that also kind of played in and fueled into what I thought. There was a need for a male voice, and it reaffirmed my thought, reaffirmed the feeling I had.

"So I said, 'OK, this is important, DeAndre. Stand behind it.' I wasn't thinking of anything else other than I needed to say something, you know, because men, we're failing, man. We're failing."

The donation came through the Enough SAID Detroit website this spring. The next morning, a staffer asked Peg Tallet if she had heard of DeAndre Levy. He had just made a "very generous" donation to the organization, which raises money to test more than 11,000 neglected rape kits in Detroit.

Tallet, a devout college football fan, knew that Levy was a Lions linebacker. The chief community engagement officer for the organization, she emailed Levy, thanking him for the donation and wondering what, frankly, was behind it. Tallet said the Michigan Women's Foundation doesn't often see athletes taking up its cause. She asked if he'd be willing to help more.

"He said I'm a little concerned about being visible, because I think philanthropy should be personal," Tallet said. "And I thought that was really an amazing thing for a young man to have thought about. A lot of people grapple with that their whole lives.

"So I said, 'I'll honor that.' He said, 'Tell me a couple ways that I can help, and I'll get back to you.'"

A few months later, Levy's publicist reached out to Tallet and said he would be doing an "Our Issue" T-shirt fundraiser in October for domestic violence awareness month. It would be a step up from his previous efforts.

Levy's campaign went viral. He held events in Detroit and promoted it on Instagram. He even reached out to his parents, who typically find out about things after he does them, and asked for help.

That, Paula and Rodney said, told them how much this project and issue meant to him, much like he did when he helped a young chef earn a scholarship. He would never have asked them for help before.

"Something like that, when he talks about it, you can see his whole face lights up," Paula said. "Even with the domestic violence awareness campaign he was involved in, I could just see him smiling inside and happy about it."

Levy found something that mattered to him. Instead of just throwing money at a problem, he could see the tangible difference he was making. He heard the stories. He dug in and tried to fix it.

The campaign raised more than $30,000 for Enough SAID, money that will be used to fund an investigator for testing rape kits for at least a year. Tallet and Levy said they hope those investigations lead to convictions and justice for men, women and children who spoke up yet saw their rape kits sit in a warehouse for years.

Tallet and Levy have never met, but what he did for her organization was profound. Tallet said she believes it could save lives.

Levy is looking forward to returning to the field. He missed the feeling of being around his teammates, of celebrating their successes. That's his immediate future.

But his bigger future, when football inevitably ends, is uncertain. Levy never thought he would be the man he has become. His father said he believes Levy will eventually broaden his campaign to help stop domestic violence and sexual assault.

Levy wants to educate. He isn't an expert. He tries to put those who dedicate their lives to issues at the forefront. But he is a voice. He has been asked to speak at various events, something he has mostly declined, at least until the season ends. He never wanted to be the face for a movement, although it has slowly turned into that.

People in New York, Colorado and his hometown of Milwaukee have reached out to assist his campaign, as did the organization NO MORE.

"I want to try and keep the conversation going from a pure education standpoint," Levy said. "Actually, the best response that I got is from a couple high school kids.

"It was surprising because what 17-year-old, what 16-year-old is even paying attention to something like this. And I don't know what end that will be. I don't know. It's a good question. It's a great question."

What started as a way to share his feelings turned into something much larger. Eventually, he'll pass it along to someone else -- he knows that -- but the evolution of DeAndre Levy speaking up and standing out continues to grow. And for the first time, he's comfortable with that.

"I feel like it's a responsibility," he said. "You have a platform for a limited time and you have an audience, regardless if you're saying something good or bad.

"If you have something important to you, why not share it, you know?"