Finding professional athletes who get in trouble with the law or set a poor role model for young people is distressingly easy. Fortunately, that’s only part of the story.
The tales below may not make it onto TMZ or “SportsCenter,” but, as we move through the 12 Days of Christmas, here’s a rundown of how a dozen players privileged to play in the NFL gave back in 2015.
12. Xavier Cooper (Cleveland Browns)
In July, Understood, a website devoted to helping parents who are raising children with learning and attention issues, profiled Cooper, a defensive lineman. Diagnosed in eighth grade with learning and reading-comprehension problems, he was a 2015 third-round draft pick for the Browns — and is only a few credits away from a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Washington State University. After the pros, he plans to be a high-school teacher or principal. Over the summer, he returned to his hometown of Tacoma, Washington, to talk to Boys and Girls Clubs and youth-football programs to inspire other kids with learning disabilities.
— Understood (@UnderstoodOrg) August 5, 2015
11. Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)
The young quarterback has led his team to two Super Bowls (and won one), but he’s just as well known for his Christian faith, his chaste relationship with singer girlfriend Ciara, and his charity efforts — including weekly Tuesday visits to Seattle Children’s Hospital. In December, he took Ciara and “Jurassic World” star Chris Pratt with him. In July, he and “Community” star Joel McHale, a Seahawks fan, captained teams competing to win the title of “2015 Plane Pull Champion,” which involved seeing who was fastest while pulling an Alaska Airlines 737-800 jetliner at Seattle’s Boeing Field. The event raised awareness and money for Wilson’s Strong Against Cancer foundation, which received a $175,000 donation from Boeing. While Wilson’s team was the official winner, things got a bit muddied (which tends to happen when the freewheeling McHale is around). Click here to learn more and see pictures.
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) December 22, 2015
10. and 9. Brian Folkerts and Brenton Bersin (Carolina Panthers)
Center Folkerts now plays for the St. Louis Rams, but back in February, he and wide receiver Bersin were both Panthers, when they cut their signature flowing locks (brunette for Folkers, and blond for Bersin). The hair was then donated to nonprofit organization Wigs for Kids, to help children who have lost their hair to chemotherapy. Bonus — one less thing for opposing players to grab!
8. J.J. Watt (Houston Texans)
Double-dipping into the good-deeds bowl this fall, the widely admired defensive end took the time in late September to visit 11-year-old Manuel Jimenez in the hospital, where he was recovering from injuries sustained in a drive-by shooting that claimed his brother’s life. Then, in mid-October, the 6’5″ Watt dressed up as the world’s biggest Batman to visit patients at Texas Children’s Hospital. Speaking to NBC News, he said: “I know what it’s like to be a fan. I know what it’s like to be a kid who looks up to football players and I just want to be that guy that parents can point to and say ‘He does it the right way.'”
— Tamra McDougall (@TamraMcDougall) October 19, 2015
7. Ricardo Lockette (Seattle Seahawks)
On Nov. 1, fans and TV viewers were terrified when a huge hit knocked the wide receiver unconscious during an away game against the Dallas Cowboys (prompting on-field prayers from players on both teams). To everyone’s immense relief, Lockette regained consciousness before he was carried off the field. After undergoing surgery on his neck ligaments in Dallas, Lockette, in the company of his parents, was released on Nov. 5. While being driven away, Lockette’s car passed through an area with many homeless people. Still wearing a neck brace, Lockette insisted on being taken through a nearby McDonald’s, where he bought 100 cheeseburgers. Lockette and his parents, without telling anyone who they were (but father Earl’s “Papa Rockette” jersey was a clue), then distributed the food to the homeless.
6. Nate Boyer (Seattle Seahawks)
The 34-year-old’s NFL career was brief — he was released during the preseason — but the story of a former Darfur aid worker who became a Green Beret, then became a college football player at nearly 30 years old, then was picked up by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent right after the end of the 2015 draft, charmed the nation. Befitting a man who was “Army strong,” Boyer still seeks to serve. As reported in November, he joined up with the Waterboys Initiative, an NFL-affiliated project to build water wells for people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Partnered with buddy and veteran Blake Watson, a single-leg amputee, Boyer plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. His “Conquering Kili” campaign has already raised $100,000 and has set a new goal of $1 million, to build 22 wells (the same number as NFL players involved in the project, and sadly, the number of veterans who die each day from suicide).
5. Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens)
A newlywed (last March) and a father-to-be (next spring), the lanky 26-year-old kicker is known as a devout Catholic who makes the Sign of the Cross before every kick, and who frequently has been the difference between winning and losing for his team. On Dec. 10, he showed off another side of himself at the Catholic Charities Christmas Festival, a fundraiser held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Baltimore. Decked out in a sharp tux, Tucker showed off an opera-quality baritone voice while singing “Ave Maria.” As a kicker, he can’t make a “Hail Mary” pass, but click here to see a 61-yard kick that comes mighty close.
4. Benjamin Watson (New Orleans Saints)
The 35-year-old veteran tight end, husband and father of five has always been a strong Christian, but he emerged as a moral voice in November 2014, when he posted a powerful Facebook essay he wrote about the pain he felt watching the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. After that, he wrote more essays about subjects that touched his heart, including racism, faith and marriage. In November, Watson’s nonfiction book, “Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race — and Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us,” was released. On Dec. 22, he wrote an essay at NFL.com called “The values that guide my life in the NFL,” talking about respect, work ethic, integrity and identity, ending with: “By deciding to live our lives based on solid values and unwavering truth, we can leave a legacy for the young men and boys who want nothing more than to follow in our footsteps.”
3. Walt Aikens (Miami Dolphins)
A few days after Christmas, the 24-year-old free safety and Liberty University grad got a nicely wrapped package at his home, filled with homemade baked goods. The note inside read, in part: “I just wanted to tell you again, thank you so much. Your mom, I’m sure, is very proud of you. Not only are you a professional football player for the Miami Dolphins, but most of all, a wonderful kind person, too.” The sender was an elderly woman Aikens encountered on Christmas Eve at a local Walmart. Seeing him struggling to hold all of his merchandise, she offered the use of her cart, which he saw was full of baking supplies. Over the women’s protestations, Aikens insisted on paying for all of her items, as well as his. Not knowing who he was, the woman asked for his address, intending to share the fruits of her labors … which she did. Speaking to The Blaze, Aiken said, “treating people the right way is just how my parents raised me.”
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So I'm at home relaxing and I get a call from my front desk telling me they have a package downstairs for me….( but the front desk guy was having a hard time describing who it was from). So confused, I get off the phone and head downstairs to pick up this random package in the middle of the day. I get to the lobby and see this nicely put together box decorated in fancy Christmas ribbons and bows. The front desk guy is steady trying to explain that the box is from some lady at Walmart….. "Then it hit me"…. The day before Christmas I was in Walmart picking up some wrapping paper and other supplies. Me being the macho man I am, decides to try to carry everything in my arms so I don't have to grab a buggy on the way in. Well this older lady in front of me saw that I was almost dropping my items and since the line was pretty long offered to let me sit my things in her buggy while we were waiting in line. I kindly told her that I was fine and I would be ok because the line was moving fast. A few minutes later while still repositioning groceries so I don't drop them, the lady comes back up to me and offers her buggy assistance once more. This time I accept because the line was moving nowhere near as fast as it was when I had first gotten in line lol. I was very thankful and appreciated her generosity. The lady was very nice and helped put my groceries in her buggy. While doing so I looked inside her buggy and saw cookie and cake batters with sprinkles, chocolate chips as well a a onesie for a little kid. It looked to me like the lady was baking goods for her grandchildren. Being that is was Christmas I was in the spirit of giving and decided to help her out since she helped me. I told the clerk that I would pay for the lady's groceries with mine. The woman insisted that I did not but I would not take no for an answer. So she allowed me to pay for her groceries and had this shocked look on my face. The lady said she has never had anyone do that before or be that nice before… (Especially here in Florida lol) the woman then asks if there's a way to repay me and I tell her that she had done enough. She then tells me to give her an address because she said she would
2. Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers)
He’s bold and brash on the field, but then a quarterback with a nearly perfect season under his belt has a right to be. But off the field, Newton has been volunteering at elementary schools since he was in college. He also started the Cam Newton Foundation to benefit young people. And next fall, he’ll produce and star in a Nickelodeon show called “I Wanna Be,” which showcases kids pursuing their goals. As reported by ESPN, Newton visited fourth- and fifth-graders at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Charlotte, North Carolina, near Christmas, telling them they each would get $200 to buy gifts for themselves and others. Looks like Newton is going to get some firsthand kid experience, announcing on Twitter on Dec. 30 that he and his longtime girlfriend welcomed a son the week before.
— Cameron Newton (@CameronNewton) December 15, 2015
1. Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys)
The tight end is the 2012 recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, handed out for volunteer and charity work; and in 2013, he won the Bart Starr Award for outstanding character on and off the field. He founded the SCORE Foundation, which works toward breaking the cycle of domestic violence; and he holds an annual free football camp for kids. But on Dec. 27, a small moment caught the attention of the football world. Witten paused in the entrance tunnel of Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium to speak to Bills legend and Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who was declared cancer-free in 2014 after a long battle with the disease. After sharing a quick hug with Kelly, Witten called him “an inspiration.”
Kelly is, indeed — and so are all these men. Being a good player is one thing, but playing for the good is even better.