My career has opened me up to many opportunities around the community. From my time in Oakland, up to my time here in Tampa. I've helped give groceries and meals to those in need locally, visit a local juvenile detention center to try and bring inspiration through our own stories to the kids that need it, and visit hospitals (specifically children's hospitals) on a normal day or around Christmas time. Giving back is something that has always given me a powerful feeling. Helping others get what they need or didn't even know they need brings a joy that can't be bought or created yourself. Every time I am able to volunteer for an event or activity, it never feels forced or time consuming. It never should. If I'm able to get out in a community and share my happiness and try to bring the same upon someone else, time isn't an issue.
Each thing I do gives me a feeling extreme satisfaction knowing I was able to make a difference, but there is one in particular that has had a special place in my heart and can honestly say brings me the most joy:
Pediatric Cancer, visiting hospitals, being with the kids.
This mission to help in this category filled a spot in my heart I didn't know was there years ago. A family close to my own had just lost their little one to Neuroblastoma. Her name was Isabella Santos. She was diagnosed with the very rare form of children's cancer in 2007. Isabella Santos fought and fought through the high risk cancer. And through many treatments remained strong. She fought as hard as she possibly could, with family and friends along her side giving support and love, until she passed away at 7 years old back in 2012. At the time I'm pretty sure I was about 18 years old, and did not know much about Neuroblastoma let alone any pediatric cancer studies or information. But during Isabella's celebration of life, after finding out that we had the exact same 'favorite quote' or Bible verse, I knew exactly what I wanted to do most in a community setting. I can't really explain how the feeling came over me. Maybe people call that destiny or just fate? Whatever you call it, I just knew.
However, during college, my mind was everywhere with school and football, and besides our community outreach events with the team, I did not get a chance to get out much on my own. Nor, honestly, did I think about trying to as much as I should've. But along the way that piece of me that latched on during that ceremony stuck with me. A couple years ago I texted Erin Santos, Isabella's mom and the founder of ISF, in hopes to learn more about how I can be involved. I had known Erin through my parents for some time, but never had the chance to truly talk about the foundation and what they do in the Charlotte community. I wanted to know more and get to know the person behind all of these efforts. And what I learned is that they do....a lot! And she made me aware of the things I could do to help out in any way. We did photoshoots for #CancerMessedWith apparel, Jersey Mike Sub night at Levine's Children's Hospital, and I participated in 5k runs to raise money for better buildings, blood centers, and grants to be able to provide some of the country and world's best treatment that these children deserve.
During one of the Jersey Mike nights at Levine's, a met a few kids. While I was talking to them, what I did came up and who I played for. I'm not one to abruptly tell someone I don't know what I do. To me it isn't ever the most important thing on my mind to tell someone. But as they learned what I did, conversations struck. I realized for a couple of kids that for the most part didn't seem to like to be around a bunch of people, as they are daily, opened up. They became a little less shy. We talked about favorite football teams, players, and even had a friendly debate about who had the better college football team. Then and there, on that night, I came to a realization that I haven't before. I noticed that with children, I had an opportunity to use what I do and my platform to reach them. To be honest, at first I had been a little nervous entering the rooms and floors of these hospitals. I never quite knew how to approach them. All types of ages, personalities, and diagnoses. It was fairly new to me to be able to be there in person and interact with all walks of life. But having those conversations that night gave me a topic to hopefully spark interest right off the bat. I didn't think about it in the sense to parade a career. I thought about it as a way to connect with kids that felt enclosed. We found a similar interest or passion in one another. Daily treatments in a hospital room. Nurses, parents, and relatives by their side every second of the day. I was told by opening up about myself; this way was a way for them to allow their imaginations to run wild. To push their dreams up higher than they were before. And hopefully even flicker inspiration in a child that was fighting to gain some of their own.
So after that night, I thought to do more activities like that. At Levine's specifically, but back in Indianapolis where I was playing at the time. That Christmas I started what now is our annual Christmas fundraiser. My first one was in Indianapolis at Riley Hospital for Children.
What the process consisted of was:
1) Sponsor a family that deserved a better Christmas
2) Get the names, ages, and wish lists of every family member
3) Share my link to raise as much money as possible
4) Use whatever money was raised to get as many gifts on their wish list as possible.
Our first "If You Ain't Giving, You Ain't Living" fundraiser went so much better than I could ever hope for. I walked out of the stores with everything on the list checked off for each member of the two families. Three carts full of Christmas goodies. Coats, pots and pans, baby clothes, silverware, kitchen tools, you name it. I can honestly say that driving back with a car full of Christmas presents was one of the best feelings of my entire life. Not only was it the first time I was able to do anything to this magnitude, but it was the first time I had ever felt how Santa feels every Christmas Eve. There is a reason that man is so damn jolly, because I was feeling every bit of that jolliness that day.
Ms. Burress, the mom of the second family I gave gifts to, amplified my joy the day I met them. Her tears of joy and incredibly sincere hug when she entered the room brought emotion to me that I wasn't expecting. She didn't say much, "Thank you." Over and over again. All I could say was that she was welcome with a huge smile on my face. Trying not to match her tears myself. Immediate impact, though. It was felt through the room. Nothing could've brought me down after that experience of being able to do that.
Last Christmas, the same followed. Only this time, Chelsea and her family (my family too but you know what I mean) were able to help out back home in Charlotte while I was working in Tampa. More of my family helping out with something that means so much to me.
Everything I have been able to do for ISF and any team I have played in for the pediatric cancer community has instilled so much inspiration that I thought I would be instilling myself. And the person that has done the most of that, is my new buddy Dyson.
A little over a year ago, I sat down with Erin to talk about the foundation and more ways I could help. I also wanted to let her know what my 'Why' was to be helping the foundation in the first place. It was a great conversation with a delicious grilled cheese food truck to help flare up energy. Towards the end we tried to brainstorm different ideas that I could tackle within the foundation or through it. Continue helping the #CancerMessedWith campaign, but I wanted to get more in depth. We came up with the best idea possible.
So weeks later, we sat down with the director at Levine's Children's hospital to go over how this kind of process worked. How I would be paired with a certain child, what similar likes and dislikes to be made aware of, and any questions I had about it. I was adamant about the love of sports, of course. But also left it open for many other interests that may allow me learn a little more about.
So later that year in September, once I had been paired with my match, I was finally able to meet Dyson and his family. I could tell right off the bat, he was just like I was at that age. A little shy, loved to talk about his sports, and intrigued to see if I was someone he could mesh with. We played trivia in the Seacrest Radio room, he played some Madden in his room, and we were able to kind of just talk. I showed him how to use Animoji on my phone, which for some reason he loved to add facial hair to his very young face.
We've had days at sports connection (an arcade place that he loves) and frozen yogurt followed by Chuck E. Cheese's. Which for me was a huge throwback and brought back tons of nostalgia. They still have great pizza by the way.
So far I have gained a friend and he has made it known to me that he has too. With plans to get him to one of my games and thinking of all the things we can do together back home in Charlotte, I think it has gone great so far. This is something I saw role models do growing up. Never did I think I would have the opportunity to do this myself. It has been humbling and inspiring. I tell everyone that I went into this hoping to inspire a young boy that was fighting something none of us could ever comprehend. Throughout our time spent together, I am the one who has been inspired. He's a fighter. A constant reminder of how positivity and a light mindset can make a huge difference. Just like how I think. He is a strong and clever kid. Never lost the love to play basketball or anything else. He's also just like any other young boy. Says what is on his mind. He's made it known that having not scored yet in the NFL is "terrible". And that my car is bad and that he was hoping to ride in a Lambo. Don't worry bro, I'm trying to get there! You have to just chuckle at those things. I can see so many kids saying the exact same thing. Shoot, it's what I used to think too!
It has been fun ride, and I've learned a lot more phrases to be aware of saying because of him. The terms "end" and "dead" even in joking terms are non existent. It's something that we rarely think about the impact it may have, but from someone in his position it's not acknowledged simply because it isn't an option. We throw our slang around without consciousness of who it may affect. The light at the end of the tunnel is all that is seen. And boy was there light.
On February 13th, Dyson rang the bell. And has been doing great ever since. It was an honor to be a part of the ceremony. Family and friends gathered to hear one of the greatest bell rings one can hear. And just like any kid, he was just ready to ring it and go eat. One day when he is a bit older, when we can have the more serious conversations, I can't wait to let him know how he lifted up a part of my life I didn't know needed lifting. I've gained a friend and a little brother I never had. For life.
So these are a few of the things that have helped me gain a new perspective on life and how we can be better in our community. There are so many ways to be active and to give back. But the things above are the reason that if I am ever able to establish my own foundation, it will be in this field. To throw even more effort into the ring to find cures and treatments that will change these children's lives forever. And those who come after them. Dyson and all the kids I have had the opportunity to meet are heroes. They are our future. They need all of the help they can get, so that they can become the firefighters, doctors, professional athletes, artists, musicians, politicians, and teachers they all wish to be when they grow up. We all once dreamed big and still are. We have to make sure the kids in our world never feel like they have to stop dreaming. That the dreams they have can become reality. Every kid deserves that much. Every kid deserves the one thing that is vital for their growth and happiness....