"I'm ready for a sports hero who doesn't treat the world like his spittoon," Golf Digest columnist Tom Callahan told the New York Times two years ago.
I think that Callahan was off-base in his blanket dismissal of professional athletes and their better instincts. Most pros recognize the responsibilities that come with being in the public spotlight; most obey the law, and many devote time and energy to community betterment. Pros make headlines when they stray, but most do not stray.
I suspect, however, that few pros serve their community as earnestly as current Washington Redskins, and former Indianapolis Colts, wide receiver Pierre Garcon has done ever since he entered the National Football League in 2008. A few hours after playing in the Redskins' first preseason game two weeks ago on "Monday Night Football," Garcon spent all day Tuesday visiting three Washington-area high schools to distribute free uniforms to the schools' football teams and talk with the players. The three teams had not donned new uniforms in years, and many of the players had never worn a new uniform in their lives.
The donation (about 300 uniforms, valued at about $50,000) was a project of the Pierre Garcon Helping Hands Foundation, which the wide receiver created in 2008 to reach out to needy youths and to pursue other worthwhile charitable initiatives. When Garcon was negotiating a personal endorsement agreement with various equipment manufacturers recently, he told them that he wanted the foundation to help cash-strapped Washington-area high schools.
The result was a contest conducted in June via social media and the Redskins' website. All local high schools were invited to explain why their football teams needed new uniforms. The three winners were Theodore Roosevelt High School (Washington, D.C.), Thomas Jefferson High School (Alexandria, Va.), and Springbrook High School (Silver Spring, Md.). The uniforms were provided in cooperation with Russell Athletic, the company that won Garcon's endorsement agreement.
"A Platform for Making . . . a Difference"
Star players sign personal endorsement agreements all the time, so why the unusual stipulation for donating uniforms this time? "Seeing the looks on these kids' faces," Garcon said after visiting the three schools, "definitely reminds me how fortunate I am to be in the NFL and to have a platform for making such a difference in their lives."
Similar impulses have kept Garcon and the Helping Hands Foundation busy for the past five years. He frequently discusses education and career aspirations with young audiences at Washington-area charter schools and the Boys and Girls Club. "I want to inspire kids to do the right thing," he says, "and show them it can be done, no matter where you're from, no matter who you are. You don't have to be an athlete to get to where you want to be."
Garcon knows where he is from and appreciates where he is now. He did not make it to the NFL the easy way. He was born in New York and grew up in South Florida, but his parents were Haitian immigrants. After his father died when he was six, his mother supported him and his three sisters by working in sugar cane fields by day and takings shifts at the local post office at night. He was a sixth-round NFL draft pick after playing at Division III Mount Union College.
"Everybody knows that this is a privileged position to be in," he told the Washington Times, "to see kids that want to be in your position, that want to learn." Charitable work is "just something that I've always wanted to do when I got in a position to do it, to be able to help out people."
"Returning the Favor"
Garcon's charitable impulses extend beyond outreach to needy local youth. When Haiti was ravaged by a devastating earthquake in January 2010, the Helping Hands Foundation responded. Garcon had never lived in Haiti, but it was his parents' homeland and many members of his extended family still live there. The Haitian government estimated that the 7.0 magnitude quake left more than 300,000 people dead, more than another 300,000 injured, and more than a million homeless.
As Garcon and his Indianapolis Colts teammates prepared for the Super Bowl, he displayed the Haitian flag after games, wore a Haitian bandana, and took every opportunity during on-air interviews to seek help from the public for Haitian people coping with poverty and destruction. His foundation partnered with other aid providers to distribute desperately needed food and supplies, and he flew to the Caribbean island several times to assist personally. "When he goes down there, he works," his agent told the Washington Times. "He's not a guy that just goes down and drops some money off, takes some pictures, and leaves."
Golf Digest columnist Tom Callahan would like Pierre Garcon. The wide receiver explains his Haiti relief efforts with the same self-effacing dignity that punctuates his explanations for serving area youth in Indianapolis and now in Washington. "If I wasn't playing football, I'd be doing the same thing, helping people out. It's only the right thing to do. . . . It's just a natural process to be fortunate and be able to help people that are less fortunate."
"Somebody helped me to get where I'm at, so . . . I'm returning the favor."
Sources: Larry Dorman, A Fresh Young Star Easily Wins the Open, and the Fans' Affection, N.Y. Times, June 20, 2011, p. A1 (quoting Tom Callahan); Russell Athletic Brand Ambassador Pierre Garcon Gives Back to Three Local High school Football Teams With Uniform Giveaway, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/russell-athletic-brand-ambassador-pierre-2... (Aug. 21, 2013) (press release); Tom Schad, Redskins Receiver Pierre Garcon Touched by Plight of Needy in Haiti, Wash. Times, Sept. 4, 2012; Hal Habib, Colts Receiver Pierre Garcon Looks to Lift the Super Bowl Trophy - and Haiti's Hopes, Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, Feb. 6, 2010.