For Chris Long, the climb to change the world continues

As Chris Long, the 33-year-old veteran defensive lineman, mulls his playing future, his organization, Waterboys, has provided more than 200,000 people with clean water. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- Chris Long's world-changing mission started as most do: through a chance encounter with broadcaster Joe Buck and Brad Pitt's brother in a bar at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It was the winter of 2013, and the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman was celebrating his first climb up Kili with former St. Louis Rams teammate James Hall. The mountain had kicked his butt so hard that it took just two or three drinks to do the trick that night, Long concedes, but he was sure he heard a patron call out his name as the man walked through the door.

"And I'm like, 'Well, that can't be for me. That's gotta be somebody else,' but I look over my shoulder anyway," Long said in a conversation with ESPN. "We're halfway around the world, and here Joe Buck walks in. I know Joe well from St. Louis, and I'm like, 'This is crazy. What are you doing here?' And he's like, 'I'm here on a water project, and I'm here to take my daughter to climb Kili.' He's like, 'You should go on a water project with us.'"

Long was leaving Tanzania the next day. Although the conversations that night with Buck and Doug Pitt, the goodwill ambassador to Tanzania and a board member of Worldserve International, were eye-opening -- as were the hardships of the people Long encountered on the trip -- they did not provide an epiphany moment that clean-water initiatives were to be Long's calling. He had traveled to Africa in the name of adventure, tired of spending his offseasons just pumping weights back home.

But the seed was planted, and Long left Tanzania feeling the need to give back to a place that provided him such a memorable experience. A few months later, he was working with Pitt, a Missouri native, on another initiative in St. Louis when it dawned on him that building wells had already become somewhat of a niche venture among professional athletes, and with the large platform the NFL provides, he and his peers had a chance to do something "that could be game-changing."

During his acceptance speech upon being named Walter Payton Man of the Year earlier this month, he provided an update on what that change looks like: Through his organization, Waterboys, he has helped provide more than 200,000 people with clean water. The goal is to up that number to 1 million people served.

"Conquering Kili" has become one arm of the venture, in which Long, fellow NFL players and military veterans hike up the mountain to raise funds for wells. They have raised more than a half-million dollars to date. The next climb starts March 2 and will include defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Beau Allen and Eagles center Jason Kelce.

"Combined, that's about a thousand pounds [of weight] between the three of them," Long joked.

"Beau and Kelce are both in Hawaii right now on vacation, and they're both coming. I will be interested to see how they do because I don't think they're doing much training over in Hawaii."

Long, meanwhile, should be in good shape. He has been training near his home in Virginia. He goes on 4-mile hikes at a place called Crabtree Falls and runs up O-Hill (or "puke hill," as Long calls it), which is familiar to any University of Virginia football player.

He might have winged it back in the day, but the 33-year-old Long no longer relies on being in "football shape" to get him through the climb.

There's at least a chance that this will be Long's last climb coming off a football season. He has yet to decide whether he'll play in 2019.

"I don't know, man. It's all about the situation to me," he said. "I never mean to make a headline where it's like, 'Chris Long unsure.' I never try to make it sound like I'm under the impression it matters either way if I play or anybody cares. But I think after you're 30, you should always take some time late in your career to think a little bit. I think anybody should take their time. Not that a second-, third-year player in the league thought about retiring, but it takes so much out of you if you're really pouring everything into it, and you've got to be in for the ride.

"It's kind of like at the amusement park, when they click that seat belt on, the roller coaster going -- you can't get out. There's no quitting. Some guys might think differently, but when you're in, you're in, so I want to make sure I'm in. I think most players need to do that, and I'm just honest about it. Maybe some guys just aren't telling the truth. But it's all about the situation for me. I know I can still play. I think I played well, especially in the second half of the year this year, once I got healthy and I got more snaps, so we'll see."

Long also knows the heightened platform that being an active NFL player provides. The buzz that came from his donating his 2017 salary to educational efforts in Virginia or giving up a quarter of his 2018 salary to help get books into the hands of kids in underserved neighborhoods is not as easy to generate from the outside.

But Waterboys is sustaining itself nicely these days, Long says. Last year, the group's goal was to do 10 solar-powered wells at $45,000 a pop. They did 23. They're just shy of their 56th well overall, and the initial goal was 32.

As a result of Long being named Walter Payton Man of the Year, the NFL will donate $250,000 to the Chris Long Foundation. That will be used in part to "support some really exciting, new, water-related initiatives we're rolling out soon," Long said.

Whether his playing days are over or not, Long's efforts in Tanzania will continue, thanks in part to a random run-in at a bar six years ago.

"I do believe that clean water is the most efficient way to change the world. From when I started, it's only been strengthened by evidence supporting our hypothesis. And it's been strengthened by a lot of human element stuff," Long said.

"When I got into it, it was very efficiency-driven. It was, 'I want to change the world, and I think this is the best way I can,' and it's also a way to give back to that beautiful place. But as I've gone more and more, it's made me realize that the human interactions, the little moments I have meeting somebody or bringing somebody over and seeing their face light up or that realization on their face when they go to a village or a school and they see how screwed up it is, that's what keeps me going and wanting to bring more girls and guys over, makes me want to keep doing it."