Jerod Cherry was attending a religious youth conference in 2008 when he ran into a staffer who had a thought about the three Super Bowl titles he won with the New England Patriots. The gathered teens had fallen $20,000 short of their fundraising goal for building an orphanage overseas, and the staffer, Courtney Cherest, wondered whether Cherry might be in the mood to cover the difference.
Cherest was joking, kind of. She was a Peyton Manning fan and something of a Tom Brady hater, and when Cherry walked by her during a break, she asked, "Hey, man, are you going to give up one of those rings?"
Cherry laughed, kind of. Then he went home, went to bed and lay awake engaged in a 12-round heavyweight fight with his own thoughts.
Even if Cherest had just been messing with him, hey, everyone knows there's an element of truth in all humor. That same day, Cherry had been touched by an underprivileged kid from West Virginia who spoke at the Momentum Youth Conference in Cedarville, Ohio.
"He didn't have a dime to his name," Cherry recalled, "and he was giving 25 or 50 cents, whatever he had in his pocket, toward the goal."
Cherry was hit by this moment from the blind side. He was helping at this event only because his wife was serving as a volunteer. He had no clue he was walking into a day that would inspire him to help protect two dozen orphans in Thailand from the scourge of extreme poverty, drugs, sex trafficking and education-free childhoods.
He was meant to be in this place, at this time. "To be there," he said, "was to see scenes of humanity at its best."
Cherry was moved by a presentation that included the image of a starving, emaciated child in a faraway land and of a nearby vulture apparently waiting for the child to die. "I'm a father with four kids, and something like that really puts you in your place," he said. "You're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, someone is actually living like that.' And here I am throwing some of my food away."
Not that Cherry couldn't relate, on some level, to the struggle to survive one day and advance to the next. He grew up poor around Oakland and Berkeley, California. He said his family spent some time on welfare, and he often tried to get by on a diet of french fries. Cherry tells the story of being without phone service in his home for three years because his father had given him money to compete in a high-level track meet in Texas. "We never recovered financially from that," he said.
College recruiters couldn't call him, but they found him anyway. Cherry said Columbia University offered him a grant to come east, and an Ivy League education in the world's most prominent market was hard to turn down. But Cherry couldn't consider anything but a full scholarship, no questions asked, and he settled on a political science curriculum at Cal-Berkeley, where he earned a master's in education and enough respect as a safety to get picked in the second round of the 1996 draft by the New Orleans Saints.
He became a special-teams player for the Patriots in 2001, just in the nick of time to win three rings in four years and, ultimately, to show up at that Cedarville conference after a fitful night of sleep and declare himself ready to do something useful with one of them.
Cherry knew he had to donate the ring that meant the most to him: the one from Super Bowl XXXVI and the upset of the high-flying St. Louis Rams. That ring symbolized the first hour of the Patriots' dynasty and the birth of the Patriot Way.
'Truly transformational for these kids'
No, it wasn't an easy choice. Cherry had three tackles in that 20-17 victory over the Rams, including one on a punt for a 1-yard loss. He poured a river of blood, sweat and tears into that journey, which he called, "something unreal, something I'd never experienced in the NFL. Just the most physically taxing season that you could put your body through." The backup safety said coach Bill Belichick never let up during that stunning 2001 run, not even for half a day. The grind made the ring more special.
But Cherry had read about Cain and Abel, and he decided his sacrifice needed to be more like Abel's. "No disrespect to the other two rings," he said. "I easily could've given the second or third one, and nobody would've said anything. But my thought was, 'If I'm going to give anything that's sacrificial and supposed to represent my faith in God, I'd better give my best and what I care about the most.'"
Now he had to figure out what, exactly, to do with his most cherished, 14-karat piece of white gold. Cherry ended up running into Tom Brady and his family at a benefit concert, and Brady's sister, Nancy, who has done extensive work for African causes, put the former Patriot in touch with an organizer who could maximize the value of the ring. They decided on a raffle that wouldn't exclude the average fan, who is usually overwhelmed by the heavy corporate hitters at an auction.
Raffle tickets went for two bucks a pop, with a minimum purchase of five tickets. The winner was promised a ring from an epic Super Bowl and about $16,000 to pay for the taxes. The raffle cleared more than $180,000 for the charities of Cherry's choosing.
Some of the proceeds went to charities such as Boston for Africa and Feed My Starving Children. Some of the money went to Asia's Hope, a Christian organization that builds homes and provides educational opportunities, food and medical care for orphaned children in Thailand, Cambodia and India, where children are often victims of, among other things, sexual exploitation.
"No disrespect to the other two rings. I easily could've given the second or third one, and nobody would've said anything. But my thought was, 'If I'm going to give anything that's sacrificial and supposed to represent my faith in God, I'd better give my best and what I care about the most.'" Jerod Cherry on why he sold his first Super Bowl ring for charity
According to Asia's Hope, Cherry's donation was directly responsible for the building of an orphanage that houses two dozen hill tribe children in the Doi Saket district of northern Thailand, a half-hour outside Chiang Mai. John McCollum, the organization's executive director, said these hill tribe children are trans-nationals who are afforded virtually no rights by the government and are often left with no hope of building substantial lives after their parents are killed while working in the drug trade. They are, effectively, refugees in their own land, some of them living near the Burmese border without electricity or basic utilities. McCollum said the high school graduation rates among these hill tribe children are estimated to be between 2 and 10 percent, and the boys and girls who end up in his organization's homes graduate from high school at a rate of nearly 90 percent.
The orphanages, McCollum stressed, are not the institutional type defined by what he called "Dickensian squalor" and staffer-to-child ratios of 1-to-20. The homes generally have staffer-to-child ratios of 1-to-4 or 1-to-5, and they are designed to approximate family living; married couples and their biological children form the core of the extended family unit. McCollum said Asia's Hope tries to keep orphaned siblings together and doesn't evict or "age out" young adults who might be 19 or 20 years old but just then advancing to seventh-grade classwork.
Some of the orphans are now studying at the local university or engaging in vocational training, bettering themselves so they can impact generations to come. "I do recognize that something like a Super Bowl ring is really irreplaceable," McCollum said. "But Jerod took what he had earned and is rightfully his, something that is priceless, and divested himself of that and did something that is truly transformational for these kids."
Tutu Bee, who runs the 10 Asia's Hope homes in Thailand, used to be one of those kids. She was the hill tribe daughter of an orphaned father, and she lived in a small bamboo hut until she was 14. Bee saw people from her Skaw Karen tribe acting as drug couriers in order to support their families. She knew of children who left the tribe on long, desperate walks to the city and were never seen again. She knew of teenage girls who were forced into prostitution.
Heartbroken by what she saw in her village, Bee devoted her life to changing the cycle of dysfunction and despair. Now she lives among the orphans of Doi Saket 4, the home built on a foundation of Cherry's kindness. They eat together, play together, pray together and watch a little TV together. The girls sleep in bunk beds in one big room, the boys in another. Asked what would've likely become of these children if Cherry or some kindred spirit hadn't provided them a home, Bee said, "Some kids might've died in prison or become drug dealers. Some girls might've gone to brothels because they would've had no choice. They had to do something for a living.
"But now they have a new life. They're not afraid. They can find a job in the city, and they can go back to their village and develop their own tribes."
Over the phone in Thailand, Bee said some of the children are fans of American football and occasionally watch it on TV. Bee said she is becoming a supporter of the Ohio State Buckeyes; Asia's Hope has its home office in Columbus, Ohio. She had a couple of questions about the upcoming Super Bowl between New England and the Atlanta Falcons, and of greater consequence, she had a message she wanted to pass along to the former Patriot Cherry.
"On behalf of the children of Doi Saket 4," she said, "please tell Mr. Cherry that his donation is very meaningful to all 24 kids and that their lives will never be the same because of him. He's given them new life. We all appreciate him, and we would like him to come and visit us here."
A selfless act
Once a financial analyst, Cherry is now a talk radio host in Cleveland, where he does afternoon drive and Browns pregame work for the ESPN affiliate WKNR. In some ways, he was the perfect Patriot or the perfect Belichick player. He appeared in 127 regular-season NFL games and didn't start in a single one of them. His intelligence and special teams hustle are what kept him in the league for nine years.
When Adam Vinatieri made his kick to win Super Bowl XXXVI, Cherry secured his first championship on any level, Pop Warner included. As ecstatic as he was, Cherry said he was suddenly struck by the thought that he hadn't reached the pinnacle of anything. "This is not it," the backup safety told himself. "There's got to be more to life than this."
He described the moment as a spiritual awakening; he described the 2008 encounter with the youth conference worker who joked with him about giving up his prized possession in the same way. Cherry doesn't wear his Patriots rings from Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX, in part because he finds them a bit ostentatious. Besides, nothing in his football life could compare to that 2001 season.
Fifteen years later, Cherry is thrilled that his most selfless team has contributed to a most selfless cause. He looked over some pictures that Tutu Bee sent from Doi Saket 4, photos of children who are no longer forgotten souls living outside the margins of civilized society. Cherry said the images left him wanting to do more.
"It's a priority of mine to make it to Thailand this year to celebrate, encourage, and hopefully bless these beautiful faces in the pictures!!!" he wrote in an email. "They appear very happy and content when you consider what they have faced in life."
Why? Because a stranger from across the globe gave them a fighting chance. That's why.
Brady was the most valuable player in New England's victory over the Rams. That much is not in dispute. But a man who made a few tackles that night, Jerod Cherry, is the Patriot who owns -- or used to own -- the most valuable ring in Super Bowl history.