NFL stars went worldwide in offseason of giving
AP Sports Writer
On his way to India to help a friend distribute hearing aids to deaf children, Larry Fitzgerald was warned how overwhelming it is to witness someone hearing their own voice for the first time.
Little did the Arizona Cardinals star receiver realize what awaited him.
Once Fitzgerald saw the expression of joy and wonder on the child’s face for the first time, it rendered immaterial anything he’d ever accomplished on a football field.
“To be able to see that smile was really moving,” Fitzgerald said. “To be able to do something like that really humbled you and brought you down to earth and makes you appreciate what you have, and making a difference in that child’s life. I know that child couldn’t care less of what I did. All they cared about is that they were able to hear.”
Fitzgerald’s experience as part of Bill Austin and his Starkey Hearing Foundation’s mission to India and Nepal in March was one shared by many of his colleagues. There were an abundance of NFL stars, second-stringers and those in between, who spent the past months taking part in what amounted to an offseason of worldwide giving.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will never complain of feeling sore or bored after helping provide health care, food and water to villagers in Uganda and visiting an orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa.
New York Jets safety James Ihedigbo quickly discovered that two-a-day practices are nothing compared with spending a week working sunup to sundown amid the ruins and rubble of earthquake-devastated Haiti.
And then there’s Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas, who found a new hero after befriending Purple Heart recipient Sgt. Eric Harder during an NFL-USO Tour in Afghanistan.
At a time when athletes are often branded by the sweeping brush of negative headlines and me-first motives, these players rolled up their collective sleeves for the greater good and were rewarded with life-changing experiences.
“It was humbling,” Peterson said. “You really don’t realize how blessed you are.”
Joined by former Oklahoma stars Tommie Harris, Roy Williams and Mark Clayton, Peterson spent 10 days touring parts of Africa along with a group of Oklahoma City medical professionals, lawyers and business leaders. Together, they helped dig wells, assisted in building a small school, distributed medical supplies, played games with children while donating their time and money to help make a difference.
Peterson was struck by how the simplest necessities could be so difficult to get, with people often walking miles on dirt roads for fresh water.
“It was a blessing to be in a position to experience that,” Peterson said. “It makes you more grounded and be able to say, ‘Hey, you think you’ve got it rough? Ha.’ This was rough. This was survival.”
Ihedigbo had much the same reaction upon arriving Haiti in March along with fellow NFLers David Clowney, Vernon Gholston and Ahmad Carroll. Through his Hope Africa charitable foundation, Ihedigbo was organizing a trip to Nigeria when he changed plans once the earthquake struck.
The most difficult and heart-wrenching moment came when they pulled up to a tent camp and began unloading supplies and Ihedigbo saw a woman cleaning her baby with a dirty sweat shirt. He handed her a box of baby wipes.
“Some of the places we went, this was the first help they had received. It blew me away because we went 3 1/2 weeks after the earthquake,” Ihedigbo said. “It really touched us to know that if we hadn’t jumped to the plate, a lot of people would’ve been hindered or hurt even worse.”
Ihedigbo says even a small effort can make a big difference.
“You never know the impact that our trip might have had on a little child,” he said. “That child may grow up and be a physician. You never know. And it’s things like that that are priceless.”
Joe Thomas’ experience was different, though equally invaluable. He found inspiration in a war zone by traveling to Forward Operating Base Bostick. That’s where he met Sgt. Harder of the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment and learned of his heroism during a 12-hour battle against the Taliban during which eight U.S. soldiers were killed at Combat Outpost Keating last October.
Aside from earning a Purple Heart for being wounded in the fighting, Harder has been recommended for a Silver Star.
“That was one of the big moments of the trip and one of the most humbling moments,” Thomas recalled. “Just hearing him talk so humbly about it, and talking about it like it’s just an everyday thing, it really makes you feel bad you have it so good and so easy back home.”
The trip was so memorable for Thomas that, upon returning home, he began reading and following on TV as much as he could about the war effort in Afghanistan. During his research, he came upon Harder’s mother, Mary Henry, and sent an e-mail praising her son.
“I am sure he had no idea what an impact it would have on me, but it was huge,” Henry said. “There are those in the spotlight that make sure that no act of kindness goes unnoticed. Not Joe. He wrote me an e-mail with absolutely no expectation to bring glory back to himself. He actually seemed uncomfortable with any praise coming his way.”
For Thomas, who has invited Harder to a Browns game this season, it was the least he – or any NFL player – could do.
“There’s no doubt that so many guys in the NFL are giving back,” Thomas said. “It’s so much a part of what we do and who we are. And we get just as much satisfaction of giving back in any little way we can, whether it’s Afghanistan, Uganda, Cape Town or maybe it’s just in Berea, Ohio.”
Fitzgerald can still envision children in India begging for a T-shirt, a pair of socks or even a stick of gum.
“It humbles you,” Fitzgerald said. “Any time you go over there and do things like that, that means a heck of a lot more than scoring touchdowns.”