By Nancy Armour |
Were this a normal year, the kids at Baker Mayfield’s holiday gift giveaway would be swarming the Cleveland Browns quarterback, high-fiving him, tugging on his hand and leaning in to share their excitement over something even rarer than a Santa sighting: a playoff berth.
Instead, when Mayfield and wife Emily hosted their annual Passing the Joy event two weeks ago, they stood on one side of glass doors at the building’s entryway while the kids stayed on the other.
“They’d have their Santa hats and signs … and they’d scream through the door,” Mayfield said. “It was adorable but, at the same time, we wanted to be around and give them high fives and talk to them and get to know them.”
Charitable efforts have been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing requirements have forced non-profits to rethink how to deliver food and other services, while the sharp and relentless rise in unemployment has meant the needs are even greater than usual – particularly during this holiday season.
Athletes who normally do food drives, toy giveaways and coat collections have found there’s the added challenge of the COVID-19 protocols imposed by their leagues.
The NFL prohibits players from gathering in person outside of practice and games, which puts an end to the popular tradition of several players hosting a shopping night for kids at a local store. The NBA bars players from attending social gatherings with more than 15 people which keeps them from doing, well, pretty much everything.
So the players, and the team personnel who help them, have had to get creative.
“Due to the protocols, that stuff has to change. You have to evolve and change what you want to do,” said Browns center J.C. Tretter, who is president of the NFL Players Association. “Our men as a whole are still looking for ways to give back and do the things we’ve always done. So it’s just working with guys who have questions, helping them find a way to do what they want to do that fits within the protocols.”
Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith bought Thanksgiving meals – turkey and sides – for 500 families in Macon County, Georgia, where he grew up. It’s a largely rural area, so Smith worked with the local Boys & Girls Club to coordinate drive-up distribution of the meals.
Stephen and Ayesha Curry took over the Oakland Arena parking lot last weekend for a socially distanced, drive-through version of their Eat. Learn. Play. foundation’s annual “Christmas with the Currys.” As the 1,000 families who participated drove along “Candy Cane Lane,” the Currys and other volunteers put food and gifts in their trunks.
Dwight Powell still paid off layaway accounts for people in need at a Dallas-area Burlington Coat Factory, just as he’s done the past few years. But instead of Powell announcing the surprise in person last week, the Dallas Mavericks big man delivered the news to each recipient virtually when they arrived to pick up their goods.
Anyone who wandered into the room at Green Bay’s Big Brothers, Big Sisters two weeks ago might have been taken aback to see the jerseys of Packers linebackers Rashan Gary and Christian Kirksey hanging on stands at the front of the room. But those stands were actually robots – Curly Lambot and Packbot – that allowed the players to visit with program participants virtually.
A phone or tablet with the player’s face on the screen is placed where his head would be, so he and the people at the event can see and hear each other. The robot can move back and forth, and players can even move the screen up and down to make it look as if they’re nodding.
The robots have allowed Packers players to “visit” schools, hospitals, veterans facilities and nursing homes in recent weeks, said Cathy Dworak, the team’s director of community outreach.
“It’s been refreshing. People are enjoying it,” Dworak said. “It’s giving (players) something to do and feeling that, even though we’re all cooped up from COVID, at least they have an out to be able to `get out’ into the community.”
Mayfield said he realized when COVID-19 restrictions forced him to scrap his youth football camps over the summer that he was going to have to think of alternatives for the holidays. In addition to Passing the Joy, which normally involves he and several teammates taking kids shopping, he and his wife identify individual families in need and deliver food and gifts to them.
Instead, Mayfield and his wife worked with two sponsors, Meijer and BODYARMOUR, to buy gifts, and were on hand Dec. 8 as some were distributed at a Boys & Girls Club in Cleveland. The rest were distributed that same day to others Boys & Girls Clubs in and around the city.
The couple made a video for the two families they adopted to watch as they open the food and gifts Emily Mayfield purchased.
“Your physical presence makes a difference,” Mayfield said. “But guys are doing everything they can and adapting.”
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.