In a year impacted by a pandemic and social unrest, NFL players have spoken out and stepped up. On Thursday, the league revealed the 32 finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, and each of them has played a significant role away from the field.
“In early 2020 I looked myself in the mirror and asked myself if I was doing enough, and that answer was no," said Dolphins defensive back Byron Jones.
"I made a commitment to be a part of positive change instead of being on the sideline and waiting for someone else to do it. Everyone knows what to do, but everyone kind of expects someone else to do it. I’m taking the responsibility and holding myself accountable. I’ve been blessed my entire life. It’s really time to give back to people who are not as fortunate as me.”
The Payton award, to be presented during Super Bowl week at the NFL Honors television show when The Associated Press reveals its individual award winners, recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities off the field, as well as excellence on the field. It was established in 1970 and renamed in 1999 after the late Hall of Fame running back.
“This year has presented significant challenges for us all, from the ongoing global pandemic to the continued social injustices witnessed this year,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “The 32 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominees remind us that even in the face of adversity, players continue to raise awareness and use their voice and platform to positively impact their communities.
"The nominees will leave lasting legacies across the country in a time when we need leadership and strength the most.”
All 32 nominees will receive a $40,000 donation in their name to their charity of choice. The winner of the award will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice.
“Being nominated as the Chiefs' Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year is one of the greatest honors of my professional career,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “This team and this community have been an incredibly important part of my life for the past eight years, and I’m humbled because there are so many players who are also doing so much to serve others and are deserving of this recognition.
"The 87 & Running Foundation began to help disadvantaged youth by mentoring and motivating them to explore and develop their abilities and aspire beyond their circumstances. ... What I’ve accomplished on the field alongside my teammates over the years — especially last year — means so much more knowing that what has been accomplished off of the field is making a difference in the lives of others here in Kansas City and in my hometown of Cleveland Heights (Ohio).”
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, singer Ciara, have been leading philanthropists in the Pacific Northwest.
“I think it’s so important to give back and to serve, because God has given me an amazing opportunity to love and make a difference," Wilson said. “It’s been really important for Ciara and me, especially with everything that’s happened in 2020, to step up and try to make a difference in areas like racism, social injustice, and food insecurity and to be able to impact a family that is facing tough challenges.
“Since I got here in 2012, I understood there was an opportunity to use my platform to love, serve, and give back. That’s been one of the core principles of life that my parents taught me.”
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod has been one of the NFL's leaders in the fight for social justice. He was a leading voice in establishing the Eagles Social Justice Leadership Council.
“Growing up, I had a lot of people sacrifice to help me get to where I am today," McLeod said. "The fact that I have this platform to give back, alongside my family, teammates and the city of Philadelphia, is truly humbling. Impacting the lives of others is one of the highest honors we can all strive to achieve, and I’m blessed to be recognized next to an inspiring group of peers who are making a difference in their communities.”
A noteworthy finalist is Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who was suspended for six games in 2019 for swinging his helmet at an opponent. Garrett is being recognized for his work with Waterboys, which focuses on bringing clean water to communities in East Africa. As an organization captain, he directs a team of active NFL players who are committed to using their platform to help address the clean water crisis.
“It is of incredible significance just to be honored and have that kind of recognition because Sweetness was a hell of a man and a hell of a football player," Garrett said of Payton. “He has been recognized and gone down in history for his off of the field passions and what he did for people in his community and all across the world. I would like to keep that going. ... To be in the same sentence as him and the same breath is an honor in itself.”
Current players who have won the award are Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Jason Witten, J.J. Watt and Calais Campbell.
Arizona: Corey Peters
Atlanta: Steven Means
Buffalo: Harrison Phillips
Carolina: Shaq Thompson
Chicago: Jimmy Graham
Cincinnati: Geno Atkins
Cleveland: Myles Garrett
Dallas: Jaylon Smith
Denver: Justin Simmons
Detroit: Trey Flowers
Green Bay: Corey Linsley
Houston: Michael Thomas
Indianapolis: Jacoby Brissett
Jacksonville: Josh Lambo
Kansas City: Travis Kelce
Las Vegas: Alec Ingold
Los Angeles Chargers: Isaac Rochell
Los Angeles Rams: Andrew Whitworth
Miami: Byron Jones
Minnesota: Eric Kendricks
New England: Devin McCourty
New Orleans: Demario Davis
New York Giants: Dalvin Tomlinson
New York Jets: Pierre Desir
Philadelphia: Rodney McLeod
Pittsburgh: Vance McDonald
San Francisco: Arik Armstead
Seattle: Russell Wilson
Tampa Bay: Mike Evans
Washington: Jonathan Allen
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker and Sports Writers Steven Wine, Tom Withers and Tim Booth contributed.
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