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Putting their best foot forward

Posted Dec 4, 2017

Steelers players will participate in 'My Cause, My Cleats' when they play the Bengals.

When the Steelers take the field on Monday night against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, there will be a lot of passion on display, as is always the case when the AFC North rivals meet.

But the passion this time will be just a little bit different.

For the second year the NFL is allowing players to represent a charity that they are passionate about in a unique manner with the league’s player cause initiative, My Cause, My Cleats.

The initiative was created for NFL players to showcase a charitable cause that is meaningful to them. Players took part in helping to design their own cleats, with the NFL giving final approval.

The list of Steelers’ players scheduled to take part includes Le'Veon Bell, Jordan Berry, Antonio Brown, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, William Gay, Cameron Heyward, Jesse James, Vance McDonald, Arthur Moats, Roosevelt Nix, Ben Roethlisberger, Alejandro Villanueva, T.J. Watt and J.J. Wilcox. While Joe Haden won’t play, he still has selected a cause that he is passionate about and is participating.

* * *

Ben Roethlisberger and Jordan Berry will be supporting Operation Underground Railroad, an organization that is working to stop human trafficking.

Representatives from the organization visited Steelers training camp this summer and during the Steelers bye, and spoke to the players about what they do and the global problem that exists, as well as the issues right here in the United States.

“This is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises on the planet,” said Tim Ballard, founder of O.U.R. “There are millions of children forced into the commercial sex trade here in the U.S. and outside. We utilize every mechanism possible to infiltrate these places where children are being sold.

“The response from the team has been overwhelming. They are on board and it’s inspiring to see. We hope this brings a furthering of the movement. That more people get involved, more people rise up. We want the whole world to rise up and say we won’t let kids be forced into slavery anymore.”

Berry painted his own cleats as from a kicker standpoint, he is a little protective and nurturing of the cleats he wears.

“I only did the one on my plant foot,” said Berry. “I don’t want to mess my kicking foot too much. On my plant foot I will do my own. I did it myself. I have the stuff at home to do it. I thought, why not give it a try. If it wasn’t any good I could call around and get someone to do it for me. But it turned out pretty good.” 

* * *

Antonio Brown launched his own foundation, Live Your Vision, and his cleats will represent it to bring attention to the work they are doing.

Brown gave away 800 backpacks, filled with school supplies, to students in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“It’s extremely important to do right now, especially in the time we are living in, to reach out to others,” said Brown. “I want to make a difference, give back, and do something positive and productive and encourage those in the community.

“I just want to make an impact. We play this game, but life is about the impact we make on others and giving them the opportunity to live their vision, what they believe in. That is my vision.”

* * *

Anthony Chickillo and Bud Dupree will be wearing cleats to support the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The hospital has a mission to provide the highest quality care to children with neuro-musculoskeletal conditions, burn injuries and other special healthcare needs within a compassionate, family-centered and collaborative care environment.

"I love helping kids out who are need," said Dupree. "Kids in the hospital, making sure you can see a smile on their face. This is right up my alley."

Their mission is carried out without regard to the ability of a patient or family to pay, which is why awareness and fund-raising is so important to them.

“We can use our platform to bring awareness to any cause we choose,” said Dupree. “It’s great for guys to show what they are passionate about. It brings awareness. A lot of guys will have different causes. It will be a chance to show what you care about, what you are passionate about. It will open up a lot of people’s eyes about what is going on in the world.

“I wanted to do something that can make an impact. They are in need there and if it can benefit them, that is important. I want to make sure the kids get help, and do whatever I can do uplift their spirits, and just help in any manner.”

* * *

William Gay will be wearing cleats to support the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and The Refuge House. Gay lost his mother, Carolyn Hall, to domestic violence and it’s something that is very near and dear to his heart.

Gay hosts an annual Christmas Dinner for the Women’s Shelter, bringing an evening of smiles and understanding to women and children who are in a difficult situation.

“They make an impact on my life,” said Gay. “They help me to express myself, to open my feelings up and to help me grow as a man. I thank them, I look up to them. They are heroes”

* * *

Cameron Heyward’s cleats will represent the Heyward House Foundation, and be designed to bring cancer awareness. Heyward’s father, former NFL running back Craig ‘Ironhead’ Heyward, died from brain cancer.

“This is not just representing my dad, but cancer in general,” said Heyward. “I have gotten to know a lot of people that struggle with it. I just want them to understand I am going to fight that fight with you, be there for you, and raise enough awareness for it.”

Heyward said the initiative is a popular one among the players, because while football is their job, it’s not the only thing that is important in their lives by a longshot.

“We care about so much more than just football,” said Heyward. “It’s nice to have a time when we can raise awareness for things we care about it, and show that we care about things.”

* * *

For Joe Haden, his cleats are personal. Extremely personal. And while his injury will keep him from playing, his heart it right there and he will wear to separate pairs of shoes on Monday night while watching his teammates from the sideline, one in the first half, the other in the second half.

He is supporting Special Olympics in support of his brother, Jacob Haden, who is five years younger than him and a Special Olympian. The younger Haden has a cognitive disorder which affects his ability to speak and communicate verbally.

“I think it’s really good to be able to do something like this,” said Haden. “You have a lot of people in the league that have a lot of stuff going on at home with their families, things they care a lot about, that mean a lot to them. For the league to let us do this is special. I am a guy that likes to wear different color cleats and they always fine you. Now when they let you get a cause out, something that means so much to you, it’s special.”

Jacob Haden calls his older brother Joe his ‘1,’ because he is the oldest sibling. And Joe takes that to heart, protecting his younger brother at all costs, looking out for him, starting from the time when they were young.

On a normal summer day the Haden boys were swimming at their aunt’s house. They all came in after a while, except for Jacob. They couldn’t find him. Joe, who was nine years old at the time, went outside and saw a shadow in the bottom of the pool. It was four-year old Jacob. He jumped in and saved him, his aunt performing CPR, and a helicopter eventually transporting him to the hospital.

“It was the scariest day of my life,” said Haden.

Jacob doesn’t let his condition hamper him, and it’s his passion that has led Joe to get more and more involved with Special Olympics.

“He is one of my best friends,” said Haden. “I have four younger brothers. Three play college football and he is a Special Olympian. He has always been doing it, bocce ball, track. We would always go to those events. My third or fourth year in the NFL I ended up becoming the Global Ambassador for Special Olympics. I would go to the regional games. It was a great time. They would have flag football, bocce ball, track, basketball. It was just so much fun to see how much joy we brought to those kids just to play the games.

“At the end of the day everybody got their ribbons and awards, but it wasn’t about that. It was about them having the opportunity to play.”

Haden’s eyes light up when he talks about Jacob. You can tell immediately how proud he is of him, how much he loves him, and how much he respects and admires the strength he has in dealing with his challenges.

“I am so happy for him, so proud of him,” said Haden. “Just for him to live his life the way he does, being so happy and proud. He has a speech delay so he can’t really talk. For him to be so happy, and have so much joy every day, it teaches me never take for granted what you have, just being able to talk, interact with people, being able to get people’s attention and for them to know what I am talking about.

“Sometimes talking to him I can’t understand what he is saying. I will be like Jacob what are you trying to say. That is when it gets to me the most. He never gets down, he will still be trying to let me know what he is trying to say, what he is talking about. It takes a big man to do that.

“When I am having a tough day, he makes life a lot easier.”


* * *

Jesse James is supporting the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, which raises money for pediatric cancer.

“I did some stuff with the football team. We did as much as we could,” said James. “It was a good experience to be involved, especially with the Make-A-Wish kids. That is what was important to me, to shed more light on Penn State and what they do there for the community and the kids. That is what it’s all about, the kids in that area who are at Hershey Medical and have survived their cancer treatment or are going through it right now.”

* * *

Vance McDonald is representing Convoy of Hope, an organization that helps the impoverished and suffering by distributing food, water, and supplies.

“Convoy of Hope truly is an organization dedicated to transforming lives across the world,” said McDonald. “From the founder and president through the last volunteer, each individual at Convoy has a heart of compassion and grace. From disaster relief to women's empowerment to feeding the hungry, this organization is committed to serving communities worldwide that need it the most.”

McDonald got involved with the organization when he was with the San Francisco 49ers. McDonald and teammates went to Haiti with the organization, helping those who were affected by the tragic earthquake. McDonald was so moved he stayed involved with the organization, helping those in the communities where he lives and works, as well as doing outreach with them to help victims of Hurricane Harvey earlier this year, as he is a Texas native. 

“The world is a giant place,” said McDonald. “And as individuals, sometimes we get bogged down and feel as though we can't make a significant impact. Convoy of Hope helped change my perspective. As a partner of Convoy, I have seen hundreds of people's lives significantly impacted firsthand. Whether it's a pair of clothes, hours of my time spent volunteering, or money I dedicate annually to help feed hungry children, my efforts are making an impact thanks to Convoy of Hope.

“No one likes being hungry. No one enjoys not knowing where their next meal might come from. Hunger is the most basic human need. Without it, every area of an individual's life starts to collapse. Convoy of Hope is dedicated to helping feed these people who are stricken with poverty so that they can have every opportunity to be successful.”

* * *

Arthur Moats cleats will represent a charity he continually gives back to, Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Moats and his wife Shonda, along with their three children, have been frequent visitors to the Ronald McDonald House, a place where families from all around the world who have a child undergoing long term care at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC stay during the duration of the child’s time in the hospital. He has baked cookies with them, done an ice cream social, had game night and has just spent quality time visiting.

He and Shonda donated viewfinders for the House’s patio, giving those staying at the facility amazing panoramic views of the City of Pittsburgh and surroundings. Moats was also named to the Board of Directors of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh.

“For us it’s about being going there to be a support system,” said Moats. “If you can brighten their day just a little bit to help through a situation they are going through, that is the main objective. Just seeing everyone with the smile on their face makes me realize we are doing everything right.”  

Now he gets bring that relationship to the field.

“The fact that the NFL is allowing us to do this and we can show our personal charitable association is special,” said Moats. “For me and my relationship with Ronald McDonald House Charities, it’s a great opportunity to raise awareness for them. It shows everyone the importance of philanthropic efforts.”

* * *

The love of football in the United States is something commonplace, something everyone knows exists. But the passion for the sport is far reaching, beyond what many fans might even be aware of.

That is why Roosevelt Nix has chosen American Football without Barriers (AFWB) as the cause he is supporting with his cleats.

Nix was introduced to the organization through former teammate DeAngelo Williams, who is on the board of AFWB, a non-profit that hosts free camps to develop American football in other countries. The camps help support football clubs and leagues in those countries, while encouraging sportsmanship and physical activity.

They also reach out to the communities in other ways, including visiting children’s hospitals to spent time with patients as well as other charitable organizations to provide aid and assistance.

In February Nix made his first trip with AFWB, traveling to Finland with Williams and other players for a camp.

“It was a great experience last year,” said Nix. “We went to Finland, we taught kids, women, and had a men’s camp too. It’s a humbling thing to go to a different county and teach the proper way to play football. Football is such a powerful sport. They don’t normally get NFL players go and teach how we do things. You are setting that foundation for them to learn that from an NFL player. It was my first year and I plan on doing it every year from here on out.” 

* * *

It’s no surprise Alejandro Villanueva is supporting a military initiative with his cleats, something that has special meaning to the former Army Ranger.

Villanueva indicated his cleats are to show appreciation for those who serve in the military, and will support the Call of Duty Endowment.

The Call of Duty Endowment provides grants to the most efficient and effective organizations that prepare veterans to compete for high-quality jobs and get unemployed veterans back to work. The endowment’s goal is to get over 50,000 veterans back in the work force.

“They are trying are to help veterans get jobs,” said Villanueva. “They were able to work with me, and represent the 1st Ranger Battalion, the battalion I served with in the Army. It’s a pretty cool experience. I served in the military and all of my friends and family are in the service."

The endowment was created by Activision, which created the popular video game series Call of Duty, as a way to give back. Villanueva, along with teammate Le’Veon Bell, is featured in the games latest release, “Call of Duty: WWII,” from Sledgehammer Games.

“I didn’t know we were going to be this popular and it was going to be this big,” said Villanueva about the game.

Bell is also representing the Call of Duty Endowment with his cleats, something he is honored to do along with Villanueva.

“It’s definitely special, especially being a part of it with Al,” said Bell. “He fought for our country. To be behind it, it means the world to me for real.”

* * *

T.J. Watt’s green cleats highlight the importance of youth sports and represent “Sports Matter,” a program through Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation.

Funding for youth sports programs has been cut in recent years, leaving students unable to play. The “Sports Matter” program helps fund youth sports, because sports builds character, increases confidence and motivates kids to stay in school and aim for higher education.

“I think it’s really important to pair with ‘Sports Matters’ and Dick’s Sporting Goods,” said Watt. “Since 2014 they have funded over $50 million to kids directly for sporting events. I think it’s unfair for kids who want to play sports but can’t afford it, or have schools that can’t fund it. Youth sports created the person I am, not only on the field, but off the field as well. It’s really important I get on board with this cause.”

* * *

For J.J. Wilcox, his cleats too are personal. Personal, and a painful reminder of a life gone to soon.  

The one side simply says, ‘Her legacy lives on.’ On the back, the name Marshell Wilcox is displayed with love.

The shoes honor one of the most important people ever in Wilcox’s life, his mother. She passed away during his rookie training camp in 2013 after battling the debilitating effects of lupus for seven years.

“I am supporting my mom and the fight for those with lupus,” said Wilcox. “Wearing the cleats, it puts an emphasis and purpose on everything, when you have them on to put your best foot forward, and let the person know their legacy still lives on. I wear them because of the impact she had on my life, how she raised me taught me a lot and put me where I am now.

“It’s a small thing to put the shoes on, but it means a lot in my heart to go out here and play for another reason.”

Wilcox, who hosts the Wilcox Memorial 5K run each year in Cairo, Georgia in his mother’s memory, said it’s still tough dealing with the loss of his mother.

“Words can’t explain it,” said Wilcox. “The pain is still there. The wound is still there. I stay strong for my family. I am a living testimony for kids who lose their parents at an early age. Just keep pushing on. It never gets easier, but you get strong.”