It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Not only is Christmas upon us, but football will be available nearly every day. Whether it’s a random college bowl game or your favorite NFL squad battling for a playoff spot, there will be games available almost every night of the week. For many of the players the Christmas season will take on a new meaning. They will have hospital visits to ailing children and many charity events to help those in need. Often lost in the hustle and bustle for most of us during Christmas shopping or football viewing are the less fortunate.
Growing up I was always fortunate enough to have a plentiful Christmas. My brothers and I didn’t always get everything we wanted, but we probably received far more than we deserved. Our friends all seemed to be in the same situation. There was never a thought of waking up on Christmas day and suffer the disappointment of a barren Christmas tree. Like many children though, I never even considered the possibility of what it would be like to experience a gift less Christmas morning. That perspective changed dramatically my first season in the NFL. Playing in the NFL provided me great opportunities to places I would have never otherwise had access. All of your childhood dreams are realized and it can be very easy to forget how you reached the top.
Since the day I was drafted, everyone always asked, “What was the first thing you bought with your signing bonus?” Never being a flashy guy, the only purchase I could think of was my ’98 Wrangler. However it didn’t seem to satisfy everyone. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t by a flashy watch or some expensive sports car. So when December rolled around later that season, I struggled with how I should treat myself after achieving a life long dream. While walking in from practice after Thanksgiving I noticed the Christmas tree in the Cowboys locker room. It was covered with cards that contained Christmas lists of families who were going through difficult times. Thanks to the urging of my fiancé (now wife), I grabbed a few cards and brought them home. Cortney (my wife) went a bought everything the families needed. Then before Christmas day we were able to throw a party at some of the various shelters where we could pass out the gifts.
It was a remarkable experience.
Many of the players were heavily involved and it was always a highly anticipated evening. To see the faces of the children was fantastic, but to see the gratitude of their parents was even more fulfilling. Since I didn’t have any children of my own, it was great to witness the pure joy the children. We continued the tradition the entire time we were in Dallas and I even began dressing as Santa Claus to help enhance the Christmas experience for the children. Similar programs exist all across the NFL and many players participate who are never publicized. So for every Greg Hardy in the NFL, there are at least 100 giving men who go unnoticed.
After leaving Dallas we were fortunate enough to join Detroit, who had a similar program set up. The protocols were the same and the experience was just as rewarding. There we even had a Halloween event (Trunk or Treat) as well. It was always a player favorite.
For 6 my first six years in the NFL, Christmas became more about helping to share my blessings with families who were going through some tough times, than about myself. When I finished playing in 2012 I wasn’t readily aware of similar programs in Columbus and it was a bit different not being part of a NFL team where the structures were already in place. However as things often do, they work themselves out. Nellie Krumlauf contacted me; she is the founder of Nelly’s Catwalk for Kids, or NC4K, a charity that supports families who have children affected by cancer. It sounds like a noble cause, but it far more incredibly impactful than I could have imagined. NC4K takes a different approach; while most cancer charities help support increased research they choose to help families stricken by cancer who are stressed financially.
Mounting medical bills and time off work can often stretch families financially and after spending a week in Nationwide Children’s Hospital with my daughter last year; I was able to witness the challenges first hand. So for the last few years we have adopted a family for Christmas and it has been just a rewarding I as remembered. My wife and I have three children of our own and that has only added to the appreciation for such great charities.
My hope is that this Christmas season, you take a break from some of the endless football watching and shopping. If you find yourself walking the mall struggling to buy meaningless gifts for people who won’t fully appreciate it don’t buy them! Find a way to share your prosperity with those who may be traveling through a difficult time in their life. It will be one of the best Christmas gifts you can give yourself, and really bring home the true meaning of Christmas.