Whether we like it or not, NFL players are role models—and now more than ever due to the innovations in social media. In light of the laundry list of recent arrests around the league (about 30 have occurred just since the Super Bowl) and the Aaron Hernandez murder investigation, let’s take a moment to highlight the guys who choose to use the spotlight for good.
From up-and-coming star signal-callers who have led by example, keeping a clean record and showing how faith, hard work, patience and dedication pays off to a few veteran defensive backs who have chosen to use their fortune to give back to the community to a linebacker who has bounced back and maintained an amazing attitude to boot in his incredible journey to the NFL after spending five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—we look at the Top 10 role models in the NFL (in no particular order).
1. LB Brian Banks (Atlanta Falcons)
If you’re not already rooting for the former 2007 undrafted rookie who spent five years in prison from being wrongfully convicted of rape, you will be after listening to his candid and compelling conversation with Rich Eisen of NFL Network.
Banks admitted to “eating himself alive with negative energy,” but said that he woke up one day and made the decision to channel his energy to football after coming to the realization that those responsible for his plight didn’t care if he wound up destroying himself.
“A lot of people ask me, why am I not angry? Why am I not disappointed? Why don’t I want revenge? I feel like, you can be angry, but now you channel that energy and what you direct it towards is up to you,” Banks said. “Instead of me sitting on my back with my hands out, asking for somebody to pay for what’s happened to me, I feel like the best revenge is success. So I chose to put on a hardhat and go to work rather than put on a sad face and complain.”
2. QB Tim Tebow (New England Patriots)
His throwing motion can be pitiful and his style of play may be unconventional, but if Tebow has any real chance to achieve long-term success as an NFL quarterback, the process begins in New England. The 6-3, 236-pound signal-caller gets to sit and learn behind Tom Brady and work with Josh McDaniels (who traded up for the former 2010 first round pick) and Bill Belichick (who also reportedly had plenty of interest in Tebow before the Broncos scooped him up with the No. 25 overall selection over three years ago).
“There are a lot of role models out there, just there aren’t many good ones,” Tebow said last June at a free public event in Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA called “Father’s Day 2012—Encouraging Men to Live, Love and Lead,” according to NFL Network.
“To me, that’s so frustrating because you have in today’s society so many famous athletes in baseball and basketball and football and golf, every sport there is,” he went on. “If we come together to be great role models, it would be amazing to see how the next generation turns out.”
In 30 seconds, Tim Tebow completely changed the way I thought about him. —Matt Berry, ESPN
Regardless of your religious views and whether or not you like him as a player, there’s no denying that Tebow has never been anything other than a model citizen and extremely charitable man. He’s also built orphanages in his birth country of the Philippines and even invites children with serious illnesses to come to games and meets with them before and after the game.
“I know that everybody likes to make fun of Tim Tebow and talk about him, but he sets an outstanding example for people,” former New York Giants and current Atlanta Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora told the New York Daily News last July. ”I think if more people would focus and try to be like him and carry themselves the way he does, I think things would be better.”
3. Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals)
Larry Fitzgerald has been a beast on the field as a first round pick (No. 3 overall out of Pittsburgh) in the 2004 NFL Draft, racking up 764 receptions for 10,413 yards and 77 touchdowns in 140 games (139 starts) in nine NFL seasons. But his impact in the way he handles himself off-the-field as a role model may be even more significant.
“I want to make sure I set a good example for young people,” Fitzgerald told the USA Today in August 2010. “I want to let them know it’s not all about football—you have to be a good citizen and give back to people less fortunate. Those are things my parents taught me.”
Fitzgerald, 29, gives all of the credit to his maturity and level-headedness to the secure, loving environment in which he was raised by his parents. Larry, his father, played football at Indiana State and is the sports editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. The star receiver’s late mother, Carol, passed away about 10 years ago from breast cancer.
“I remember being asked in class, ‘Who is your role model? Kids would say this athlete or that athlete. I would say, ‘My father.’ My father led by example. He was respectful towards my mother and he had integrity. I didn’t have to look very far to see what it was to be a man.”
Early detection and finding a cause for breast cancer is one of Fitzgerald’s chief charitable causes, along with his First Down Fund that supports healthy children and families in Minneapolis.
4. CB Cortland Finnegan (St. Louis Rams)
Wait, what? Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, Cortland Finnegan is one of the NFL’s best role models. Put aside the fact that he’s considered hands down one of the dirtiest players in the league.
The very versatile and aggressive 5-10, 188-pound All-Pro cornerback has collected a total of 574 tackles with 7.0 sacks, 17 interceptions (for 425 yards and four scores) and four forced fumbles in 109 games (94 starts) since entering the league as a seventh round pick (No. 215 overall) out of Samford in 2006.
A two-time nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, Finnegan, 29, started The ARK 31 Foundation in 2009—which stands for Acts of Random Kindness—to benefit children with special needs and disabilities—in honor of his mother, Linda, who spent 20 years in the military and raised Cortland and his two older sisters.
The oldest sister was born with down syndrome about 10 years before Cortland and she has been a huge inspiration to him even though he never got to meet her as she passed away before her eighth birthday.
5. QB Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)
Coming in as the No. 4 QB in last week’s list of the Top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL today, Drew Brees is the only quarterback in NFL history to complete 400(+) passes five times and throw for 5,000 yards three times, as well as 40(+) TDs in consecutive seasons.
He also helped many local residents rebuild their homes and their lives following the horrific damage from Hurricane Katrina before of course leading New Orleans to its first Super Bowl appearance and victory on February 7, 2010.
Brees, 34, also started the Drew Brees Foundation in 2003, which has helped raise money for everything from cancer research to education to underprivileged youth. The Vicks VapoRub commercial he did with his son is also heartwarming.
[RELATED: The Top 10 Quarterbacks in the NFL Today]
6. RB Arian Foster (Houston Texans)
Nobody on this list is anywhere close to being your average NFL player and the other nine really great role models each have a different story, but there are several things that make Arian Foster and his crazy emotional journey to the NFL different from all of the rest. An avid writer of poetry with an amazing, inspiring life story (must-watch video below), Foster entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009 after a roller coaster collegiate career at the University of Tennessee.
In the seventh grade, one of my teachers asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Kids were giving answers like doctor…like lawyer…veterinarian…I said I wanted to play in the NFL.
I remember the teacher said, ‘well, what else do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘why are you asking me what else I wanted to do, why don’t you ask the doctor or the lawyer what else they wanted to do?’ And she’s like, ‘well, that’s just not a very realistic goal.’ I said, ‘why not?’
My teacher doubted me. And I don’t even remember her name. It was the beginning of me proving people wrong. In this offseason, I shared my experience with some students at my old high school.
When you’re talking with kids, I think you should encourage dreams; not demean ‘em. There is always gonna be somebody that says you can’t do something and usually that somebody didn’t do what they wanted to do with their life. I tell kids all the time man, don’t listen to adults.
Even though he hasn’t used his account in almost four months, Foster has over 400,000 followers on Twitter and the star running back caused some controversy for posting an anti-awesome MRI picture of his hamstring in August 2011 and also announcing his decision to go vegan before the start of the 2013 season.
“The most interesting man in the NFL” (according to Sporting News) has also guest starred on Hawaii Five-O and was among several other NFL players that supported Ron Paul heading into the 2012 presidential election.
He has appeared in 45 games (42 starts) and three Pro Bowls over the past three seasons, rushing for 4,264 yards and 41 touchdowns (averaging 4.46 YPC on 956 carries) with 159 receptions for 1,438 yards and six TDs.
Foster, 26, also volunteers with many different charities, including The Boys and Girls Clubs and “A Crucial Catch,” a program of the American Cancer Society which is dedicated to early detection of breast cancer.
7. QB Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)
If you followed Russell Wilson at all in his days at N.C. State and Wisconsin, you may have wondered how in the world this class act fell into the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft…and was still seen by some as a reach as the No. 75 overall pick.
Had it not been for his smaller frame (5-11, 206 lbs), Wilson would have assuredly been a first round pick. He started showcasing his amazing potential and proving that NFL evaluators made a mistake last preseason when he emerged as the Seahawks’ starting signal-caller over Matt Flynn, who received a three-year, $19 million deal with $10M guaranteed last March.
Wilson, 24, completed 252 of 393 passes (64.1 percent) for 3,118 yards and tied the NFL’s rookie record with 26 TDs through the air and just 10 interceptions in 16 games (all starts) during the regular season. He also added 489 yards and four scores on the ground on 94 carries and continued to improve leading up to the postseason, where he performed his best all year—passing for 385 yards and two touchdowns in the thrilling loss on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.
During his junior year in high school, Wilson made the decision to start a football camp to help inner-city youth. Now that he has the means to implement his idea, Russell Wilson Passing Academy will be arriving coming to five cities—Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Madison, Wisconsin and Spokane and Seattle, Washington.
“Over this two-and-a-half-week period, basically, I’ll meet 1,400 kids,” Wilson said during the Madison stop, via Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal. “If I can change one of those kids’ lives, inspire one of those kids, that makes the difference and goes a long way.”
Wilson and his wife Ashton also spend his one day off each week making life better for others at Seattle Children’s Hospital. What an awesome role model. You can follow him on Twitter @DangeRussWilson.
8. FS Madieu Williams (Free Agent)
One of the best free agents currently on the open market, Madieu Williams has appeared in 119 games (102 starts) and recorded a total of 587 tackles with 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 13 interceptions (returned for 149 yards and two scores) with the Cincinnati Bengals (2004-07), Minnesota Vikings (2008-10), San Francisco 49ers (2011) and Washington Redskins (2012).
But the former 2004 second round pick (No. 56 overall) out of the University of Maryland is best known for the impact he’s made off-the-field and was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in February 2011 while he was actually in the Persian Gulf visiting U.S. service members.
“From the day I first met Madieu I could tell there was a fire inside of him. He is a quiet and humble young man that is not attention seeking,” said Gloria Friedgen, Coordinator of Alumni Affairs and Outreach at the University of Maryland. “I am so proud to see Madieu receive the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. He is truly leaving his mark on the world.”
Former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier echoed Friedgen’s sentiments, describing Williams’ “accomplishment” as “well-deserved,” according to NFL.com. “Madieu is a person that cares about people. He is not your prototypical pro athlete by any means,” Frazier added. “The fact that he is still taking trips and helping others that are less fortunate says a lot about Madieu. He has no other motivation other than to see someone else’s life become better that what it currently is. He is a rare person.”
Williams, 31, grew up in a poor area of Prince George’s County, Maryland after leaving his birthplace of Sierra Leone at the age of nine.
“When Madieu signed here [in Minnesota in 2008] as a free-agent, before he caught his plane home, he asked to visit the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital,” said Executive Director of Community Relations Brad Madson. “Right then I knew he was a special man. It’s been a privilege to see Madieu embrace our local community through his work with the North Community YMCA and Harvest Preparatory/Seed Academy, but globally, the great works he has done and is doing in Sierra Leone will leave a legacy long after Madieu is done playing football.”
Out of all of these awesome role models, Williams motivates me the most to go out change the world.
9. QB Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins)
RGIII’s journey to the NFL began over 7,000 miles away in Okinawa, Japan, where Griffin—the son of military parents—was born at an army base in 1990. His family left for the U.S. when he was three-years-old and had settled in Waco, TX by the time he was seven. He started spending hours with his dad on the practice field at the age of 12, but Griffin’s father woke him up at 4:00 a.m. on his 13th birthday and told him that he had to become the man of the house before leaving for the invasion in Iraq.
To the family’s relief, Griffin’s dad returned after six months and continued to preach discipline and excellent work ethic in school and sports and also helped pave the way for his son’s emergence in rehab leading up to RGIII’s final two seasons at Baylor.
Griffin even went to the gym to work out around 2-3 a.m. after winning the Heisman Trophy while everyone else was celebrating. And as impressive as that may be, RGIII grew up equally committed to his academics, finishing seventh in his high school class and earning his undergraduate degree in political science in at Baylor in just three years on the way to his master’s.
The 6-2, 217-pound up-and-coming star signal-caller completed 258 of 393 passes (65.6 percent) for 3,200 yards with a 20:5 TD-to-INT rate in 15 games (all starts) with 815 rushing yards and seven scores on 120 carries (6.8 YPC) and led his team to seven straight wins en route to hosting its first playoff game since 1999 in his rookie campaign.
RGIII chose to never take himself out of the game for fear of letting his team down, and albeit many argue coach Mike Shanahan should have stepped in and pulled him out of in the loss against the Seahawks, Griffin has continued to work out with no setbacks and looks to be ahead of schedule with just over three weeks until the start of training camp and just over two months until the start of the regular season. He also recently helped to make an eight-year-old fan’s dream come true.
10. CB Nnamdi Asomugha (San Francisco 49ers)
Nnamdi Asomugha may be known more for his production on the field and probably for good reason, as the former 2003 first round pick (No. 32 overall) out of Cal collected a total of 310 tackles with 11 interceptions and two forced fumbles in 122 games (99 starts) during his eight-year stint with the Oakland Raiders (2003-10).
While he did struggled over the last two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles after the club signed him to a five-year, $60 million contract with $25M guaranteed as the top free agent nearly two years ago, there’s reason to believe that the two-time All-Pro cornerback will be able to bounce back in 2013, as he gets a fresh start with the team from the other side of the bay (San Francisco 49ers) and perennial Super Bowl contender that runs a defensive scheme which is better suited to his strengths.
Asomugha also hasn’t seeked attention about using his platform to elevate his philanthropic missions.
He formally founded the Asomugha Foundation along with his family in 2005 to support to key programs: Orphans and Widows in Need (OWIN) and the Asomugha College Tour for Scholars (ACTS).
OWIN helps women and children in Nigeria—the country of his heritage—by providing food, shelter, medicine, literacy efforts, vocational training and scholarships to those in need. Each year, as part of the annual college tour and mentoring program known as ACTS, Asomugha personally leads low-income, high-performing students from the Bay Area and Los Angeles on trips to college campuses around the country and participates with them in service projects in their communities.
Honorable Mentions: Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez; Steelers SS Troy Polamalu; Broncos QB Peyton Manning; Vikings RB Adrian Peterson; Cowboys TE Jason Witten
Michael Gartman is a College Football and NFL Senior Writer, the AFC South and NFC West Lead Writer and the Founder, CEO of GridironGrit.com. He’s also about to start reporting on topics across all sides of the political spectrum and analyze important issues in the liberty movement for a political website. Follow him @_MichaelGartman on Twitter. Be sure to ‘like’ Gridiron Grit on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @GridironGrit to keep up with the latest coverage on college football, the NFL and more!