The New York Times recently published a very touching story by reporter Greg Bishop about the beautiful bond between Tony Richardson, New York Jets fullback, and Tyler Nelson, a 16-year-old from Texas who is awaiting a multiple organ transplant.
Tony and Tyler met in Tampa, Florida in February 2009 through the Make a Wish Foundation and bonded instantly. The friendship between the professional football player and the ailing teen with cystic fibrosis blossomed in the months that followed, and the two have shared hours of conversation as well as visits, phone calls and text messages. While Tony admires the boy’s courage and stamina, young Tyler is flourishing under the nurturing attention of the sports star and his colleagues.
Those who have followed Tony’s career prior to this will probably not be surprised by the poignant story. A wonderful role model, he has dedicated much of his free time helping others throughout his 16 years in the NFL.
But Tony is not alone in his altruism. There are a large number of wonderful NFL players doing great work in the world. We don't hear the stories of these magnificent role models nearly enough. Instead, we are inundated with stories about the very small number of players who get into trouble. Meanwhile, the NFL rosters both past and present brim with names of players who overcame tremendous obstacles and hardships to become not just fine athletes, but extraordinary individuals that serve as an inspiration to us all.
The NFL contains so many examples of these fine young men who happen to be sports heroes, but beyond their stats, live their lives in an exemplary fashion and devote themselves to helping individuals and society as a whole. How can we bring these stories to those who need to hear them most: today’s children?
In an attempt to address that question, in 2010 I launched Insightful Player, LLC
with a vision of providing an answer to a crucial worldwide calling for messages of hope that provoke positive action. Insightful Player™, a bold movement of hope committed to lifting the spirit of the human race, starting with our kids, is putting high integrity NFL players on the largest stage in the world to share their personal heartfelt stories to inspire all, especially kids. Each Insightful Player™ story shows solid evidence of the immense power of the human spirit. We all need to be reminded of this, especially kids and especially now!
One of my favorite stories is that of New York Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, a young man who by his own admission made big mistakes early on, but then dramatically reversed course after he lost a close friend in a car accident and acquainted himself with his higher power.
Jerricho was raised as the second-youngest of 13 children in Birmingham, Alabama. “I watched everything going on around me,” he now says. “I still made my fair share of mistakes. But, I was able to learn from those mistakes at a young age and I’m very thankful for that. Seeing the outcome of the decisions guys around me made allowed me to get to where I am now.”
Although the surroundings may have sometimes been tough for a young child, the love he witnessed between his parents embedded in Jerricho early lessons about commitment and devotion. “I have absolutely great parents. My dad struggled with alcoholism, but as a child I was able to witness the way that he grew past his problems. And I saw my mom praying for him constantly, and I saw how God answered that prayer for her. To see them staying together to this day is an inspiration to me.”
Just as important as their marriage was their spiritual commitment. Although when he was a child he so dreaded going to church that he would hide under the bed until his mother dragged him out on Sunday mornings, he now says that “the most important thing my parents did for me was show me the way to the Lord. That’s the best thing you can do for your kids.”
At the age of twelve, Jerricho joined a street gang. He profoundly regrets that misstep, and these days he speaks openly about it in hopes of preventing other boys from following that same path. “That’s not the way to live, watching your back every day, going out different times of the night partying and all those things I shouldn’t have been doing at a young age."
Then, when Jerricho was sixteen, his friend Brian was killed in a car accident. After that, everything changed. “I guess you could say that’s when the light bulb went off,” Jerricho says. “I had to think about Brian and the type of guy that he was. He was a humble guy with a strong work ethic, always willing to help others.”
Not only did the accident yank him off a path of self-destruction; it also put him on the road to a new relationship with a higher power. “I just kept wanting to ask, how could he be gone this soon? But God has reasons. Now, looking back at it, thinking about the type of guy that Brian was, I see that maybe he did live a full life, because he was here and he had a purpose for that time on this earth: he impacted my life and he impacted everyone else around him.“
A burgeoning talent for football helped him to straighten himself out. “The kids that don’t have sports to preoccupy them the way I did are worse off, and they’re the ones who end up in gangs and stay there. It doesn't matter whether it's sports or a professional goal, like wanting to be a doctor or a lawyer. You need to find something to pursue in life to get out of that situation.”
Stronger and wiser after the car accident, gang-free and at the beginning of a new path toward spirituality, Jerricho went to North Carolina State University
, where he was a two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and broke school records with 200 career receptions and 15 career 100-yard receiving games. In 2004, the Jets drafted him out of North Carolina State, and he has played for that team ever since.
Jerricho again pondered the mysteries of God’s ways when he and his wife Mercedes, whom he calls an inspiration and a blessing to him, found out that they could not have biological children. The enormous disappointment of this discovery was followed by the decision to adopt, then a crushing emotional blow when the birth mother of the infant boy they were in the process of adopting had a change of heart. Jerricho admits wondering what God’s reasons were for causing this kind of disappointment and frustration in his and his wife’s life, but he believes the reasons became clear less than two weeks after the adoption fell through when another baby – their daughter Jacey – became available to them.
Today, the Cotcherys aid various local initiatives and have recently established The Cotchery Foundation
, a not-for-profit organization that benefits underprivileged youth. Meanwhile, he also keeps his sights on the importance of doing well at his profession. "God has blessed me with this talent to play football. I don't want to go to Judgment Day and hear God say, 'Why didn’t you use your talent to the best of your ability?' He saved me and gave me a chance in life and so now I want to make the best of it."
Jerricho is just one of dozens of NFL players I’ve written about in the course of the Insightful Player project. Like Tony Richardson, these men find ways to express gratitude for their football talent by giving back to their families, their teammates, and their communities. Their stories cannot be told enough as a tool for inspiring today’s young people to reach new heights.
This holiday season, Insightful Player is giving away “A Gift of Insights," a special PDF copy of all 30 of our Insightful Player™ stories. Give them as gifts! Share them with family and friends! Begin discussion groups! But most of all, share them with every young person you know! Download A Gift of Insights at http://www.theinsightfulplayer.com.