Don't overlook athletes' charity

August 26, 2007|By RICK MAESE

When a headline leaps off the sports pages, squirms its way out of our world entirely and finds itself oozing out of the mouth of Bill O'Reilly or Nancy Grace -- visualize: gums flapping like a flag in a hurricane -- we're all in grave danger. Not because of any specific blabbermouth, per se, but because of their influence over an audience that generally can't distinguish pigskin from pork rinds.

The unversed don't know better, and when the subject is someone such as Michael Vick, they're handed a painter's palette with a single color and one giant broad brush. To them, every football player is the same.

Fortunately, there are enough reminders that this isn't the case; unfortunately, we don't spend nearly enough time focusing on them. You never have to go far to find the anti-Vick, but honestly, are we really looking?

"You could be somewhere in Europe right now and they know what Michael Vick is up to. But we could be doing something right here in the local area -- the backyard -- and people would rather focus on that other thing," Ravens tight end Daniel Wilcox says.

You can't blink an eye in an NFL locker room without seeing someone who has faced the stereotype, carefully constructed over time by atypical miscreants such as Vick.

"Oh, you should see when it comes to meeting women," Wilcox says. "There's a million stereotypes: `You're a football player? Well, I'm not talking to you. You're a bad guy, a thug, do stupid stuff, dumb-jock syndrome, a complete dog with women.' It's like, `Wait, you don't even know me.' "

No, none of us do. We're so busy studying players' misdeeds that we overlook their good deeds. If we're going to devote so much time to someone such as Vick, we should spend at least a couple of seconds appreciating what players like Wilcox do. If only a couple of seconds was enough time to sum it all up.

Since arriving in Baltimore in 2004, Wilcox has made more than 100 community appearances. Reading programs. School assemblies. Field trips. Clothing drives. Thanksgiving dinners. Habitat for Humanity. Football camps. You name it, he has done it. Just last Friday, he was named by Hooked on Phonics as one of 10 literacy ambassadors across the country.

While Vick might represent one extreme and Wilcox another, most NFL players are involved in some sort of community outreach. Some because it's contractually required, but many because they're willing to shoulder a sense of social responsibility.

For Wilcox, the path to the NFL was hardly traditional. Raised by his mother, he didn't academically qualify for a Division I school. Before he could transfer to Division I-AA Appalachian State, he had to attend Georgia Military Academy.

"I've never heard of a school so determined to get you kicked out. It was like, they wanted you there, but they didn't really want you there," Wilcox says. "They break you. There were guys leaving in the middle of practice. You woke up every morning trying to figure out whose room was empty, who left in the middle of the night, throwing a trunk out the window at 2 o'clock in the morning into the back of a pickup truck."

Wilcox was an undrafted free agent who played a little bit with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before finally sticking with the Ravens. He appreciated the tough journey and knew it was a story that could inspire people.

"When I was growing up in Decatur, Ga., I didn't see guys coming back; no one was doing a free camp or telling us what it was like," he says. "Anything I've got, that I grew up with and experienced, I figure talking about all that helps the kids. They need to see that I'm not that different from them -- that they can make something of themselves, too."

Teammate Ed Reed attends several of Wilcox's functions and says you can see children's eyes light up when Wilcox speaks. And when Wilcox looks at them, he sees a bit of himself, too, someone who was just a decision or two away from a completely different life.

There were several crossroads, of course. Wilcox's best friend and cousin both chose to quit the military school after one day. Another close cousin was shot when Wilcox was 12.

"Could've just as easily been me," he tells kids.

And a good friend at Appalachian State, a basketball player, drowned before their senior year.

"You ever have somebody pass away and it makes you think, `Why God, why him? Why did you take him and not me?' " Wilcox says. "You could cry for hours and you never understand why. But I feel everything happens for a reason, so when someone close to you dies, it's God saying, `Yeah, it could have been you. So let him live through you and take care of your business and take care of the people around you now.' "

When it comes to judging NFL players, Wilcox says it's not fair to focus solely on the cover. When he was a teenager, he had gold teeth but says that didn't mean he was gang-banging or getting into trouble. And today, he wears a helmet; all that means is that he's a football player. He's not Michael Vick.

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