Courage of these kids humbles football heroes

March 07, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

"Hey Drew," the boy asked. "You want to play some football?"

The answer from Drew Bledsoe was yes. And with that, one of the most magical days in sports kicked into full swing.

Bledsoe, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, walked outside and began playing catch with a group of boys at the St. Vincent's Center in Towson.

Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware, Minnesota Vikings safety Robert Griffith and other Ed Block Courage Award winners followed, ready to create a football field of dreams.

The center is home to severely emotionally disturbed children whose problems stem from emotional, physical and sexual abuse. And every year, the 31 Ed Block winners from each NFL team bring them Christmas in March.

The players do not come bearing gifts, at least not in the material sense. But what they give -- and what they receive -- makes for an unforgettable experience, one that can change lives.

If the worst of sports is embodied by John Rocker, Darryl Strawberry and Ray Lewis, then the best was on display yesterday. The players spent 3 1/2 hours learning about the children, eating pizza with them, even tying their shoes.

Derrick Alexander, a 6-foot-4, 286-pound defensive end for the Cleveland Browns, rode bicycles with one young girl. Bryant Young, a 6-foot-3, 291-pound defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers, played on the swings.

No, tonight's banquet at Martin's West is not just another stop on the rubber-chicken circuit. Bledsoe will bring his father, New Orleans Saints defensive end Troy Wilson his mother, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Chad Scott his grandmother.

The players are touched to receive an award that is voted on by their teammates, and honors character rather than performance. Then they learn that they can inspire courage in children engaged in what the Rev. Ray Chase of St. Vincent's called "a battle for their souls."

"When you're an athlete, it's an opportunity, but also an obligation, to be a role model," Bledsoe said, uttering words that some athletes would consider blasphemy. "To get a chance to interact with some kids who have had a tough time, help them have one day where they have a lot of fun, it's a great feeling."

Most of the players flew in Sunday night, and arrived for breakfast yesterday at 9 a.m. Four boys dressed in NFL replica uniforms hung medals around their necks. St. Vincent's administrator Mary Maffezzoli read a chilling account from one abused child. A 14-year-old girl adopted from St. Vincent's spoke to the players, as did her parents.

The program ended with 10 children singing, "I Believe I Can Fly." The players then dispersed to different houses at St. Vincent's, awarding the children their own courage awards and receiving friendship pins in return.

"Our boys are pretty excited, but also pretty nervous," one administrator told a group of five players. "We ask that you give them all the support you can. This is a big deal for them."

The players responded in All-Pro fashion.

And the real fun began when everyone went outside.

Shortly after he started playing catch, Bledsoe joked, "I'm going to tear my shoulder. I haven't thrown anything in three months." But quickly, he and Griffith organized teams for a game of touch football.

Bledsoe's team included Detroit Lions defensive tackle Dan Owens. Boulware lined up against them, his right arm in a sling following shoulder surgery. "Don't tell the coaches," he said, but for once, the Ravens could relax -- their Pro Bowl linebacker took it easy.

The game was spiced with high-fives, humor and laughter. After his first attempt at a long pass, Griffith said, "Oh my goodness. Let's get the short game going." Bledsoe jokingly complained about his protection, shouting, "Who was blocking on that play?" And naturally, the boys loved every minute.

Off to the side, St. Louis Rams tight end Ernie Conwell spent an hour advising two boys on how to catch a football. Bledsoe's wife, Maura, started a game of checkers with another child. Washington Redskins guard Tre' Johnson stood patiently, playing catch with anyone who wanted to join him.

The girls of St. Vincent's also got in on the fun. Several gathered on the basketball court with LeShon Johnson, the New York Giants running back who beat cancer and said it was "nothing compared to what these kids are going through."

When one girl couldn't make a basket, the 6-foot Johnson lifted her toward the rim, trying to help her cause. And after that attempt failed, Johnson summoned the 6-5 Bledsoe at the other end of the court, shouting, "Hey, Drew!"

Bledsoe hoisted the girl for a successful basket, then did the same thing with another, drawing applause. The two girls embraced, then further celebrated by playing, "Ring Around the Rosie."

All morning, scenes like that were common. A cynic might suggest that 3 1/2 hours isn't much time for an athlete to spare. But a child at St. Vincent's might tell you that it was the greatest 3 1/2 hours of his or her life.

"I feel blessed. I had an awesome family," Boulware said. "These kids, just knowing what they've gone through and some of the things they've struggled with, to see them out there playing and pretty happy, it's just special."

The worst of sports, you hear about all the time.

The best of sports was on display yesterday.

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