When the Steelers take the field against the Washington Football Team in Week 13, there will be a lot of passion on display.
But the passion won't just be about the game.
For the fifth 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. Week 13 will be the first week players are permitted to wear them, and a record number of more than 1,000 players are scheduled to participate.
League-wide, out of the total 20.5 percent of players selected social justice causes, 17 percent selected causes related to youth and education, while 14 percent of players are supporting health and wellness-related initiatives.
"My Cause My Cleats was created out of conversations with NFL players who wanted an opportunity to shed light on causes that mean the most to them," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "Season after season I am inspired by the growing number of NFL players that participate in My Cause My Cleats and the causes they represent. Each player has a story to tell and we are grateful for the impact they make in the communities in which they live and work, and society in general."
The initiative was created for NFL players to showcase a charitable cause that is meaningful to them and players took part in helping with the design of their cleats.
Below is a sample of some of the causes Steelers players will be representing.After the players wear the cleats, they have the option to auction them off to raise money for their cause on NFL Auction, with 100% of the funds raised given to the charity. Fans may bid on player cleats at NFL.com/Auction.
Below is a sample of some of the causes Steelers players will be representing.
Safety Terrell Edmunds is wearing his custom cleats to Fight Against Racism, attacking a social justice issue he is passionate about. Rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith is supporting the END IT Movement, a collective of everyday people united by the hope that they can put an end to slavery and human trafficking. Joshua Dobbs is supporting two causes, the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, supporting those like himself with alopecia, as well as Girls Inc., an organization that focuses on the development of the whole girl where she learns to value herself, take risks, and discover and develop her inherent strengths.
Cause: 'Design a Cleat for Minkah Fitzpatrick'
During the COVID-19 pandemic art has brought people together in different manners, from murals, to sidewalk chalk designs, to signs in homes and front yards showing love and positivity. And now, one lucky fan had the opportunity to have their artwork on cleats being worn by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
As a side to the My Cause My Cleats game, one fan designed cleats for Fitzpatrick to wear this week as a part of 'Design a Cleat for Minkah Fitzpatrick.'. While my Cause My Cleats showcases causes the players are passionate about, these cleats are about expressing positivity through artwork.
"It's a cool opportunity for the fans," said Fitzpatrick. "It's interactive. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves, but also interact with the players. It's a chance for them to show their artwork, their support. It's a fun experience."
Fitzpatrick encouraged fans to get creative, to not hold back when designing the cleats.
"I encouraged getting as creative as possible. Think outside the box," said Fitzpatrick. "Art is a way that people express their inner feelings. If someone does it on the cleat, and I can relate to them, it will be an awesome opportunity to allow me to show the world how that individual is feeling."
All designs were reviewed, with the winning design ultimately decided on by Fitzpatrick and then painted on his cleats by local artist Cody Sabol, who has designed players cleats for the initiative through the years. The design that was chosen highlights Fitzpatrick's 'Unshackled" charity, a faith based non-profit organization focused around the mantra "let your faith be bigger than your fears." The organization's mission is to provide resources and raise awareness for children and families in need.
The winning design was by Rodney Blair, from Houston, Texas, with 'Unshackled' on one side and 'Warrior' on the other.
"I chose 'Unshackled' because it seems to be an organization that is close to Minkah's heart," wrote Blair. "'Warrior' because of the way he plays, and from what I can tell, he's a man of faith. I imagine he would be a spiritual warrior as well."
Fitzpatrick will wear the cleats during one game, but also might wear a different pair of cleats that represent a cause he is passionate about for one of the other games the league has designated for My Cause My Cleats.
"It's a cool opportunity to allow guys if they have their own cause or charity, to show that, let them get it out there and show people what they are doing," said Fitzpatrick. "That makes it really cool."
During Week 13 of the 2020 NFL season, Steelers players are showcasing their chosen charitable cause on their game cleats
Cause: Special Olympics
For Joe Haden, his cleats are personal. Extremely personal.
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, who is the Global Ambassador for Special Olympics. "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."
Cause: Honoring his father, Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward through the V Foundation for Cancer Research
Family is everything.
And for Cameron Heyward, family is what his cleats are all about.
When he takes the field this week, Heyward will be sporting cleats that honor his late father, Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward, an 11-year NFL veteran who lost his battle to brain cancer in 2006, when he was only 39 years, and Cameron was still in high school and the V Foundation, founded by ESPN in honor of late N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer after a courageous and public battle with the disease.
"I never viewed my dad as a pro athlete," said Heyward on a podcast with the V Foundation. "He was my dad. He was my best friend. I always viewed my dad as my best friend and someone I could count on."
Craig Heyward was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998, ending his NFL career. It was tough for the entire family to deal with on many levels, but they also tried to look at the positives.
"I talk to my mom, and it was pretty tough to have such a joy taken away from him," said Heyward. "I think it all started when he was experiencing blurred vision and got checked by the doctors. They found the tumor behind his right eye. They were able to remove it. It was benign. It left him blind in his right eye.
"With the tough decision to retire, it gave him the opportunity to be around me and my brothers more. I like to think when one door closes, another door opens."
Heyward said his dad was always at his games and joked that he was always the loudest one there.
"He continued to live life," said Heyward. "I know it hurt having football taken away, but he wasn't going to sulk and absorbed life."
Sadly, the tumor returned, this time causing a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side and the challenge even greater.
"His goal was to get to a point where he could walk for my senior day of football," said Heyward. "Obviously, he didn't make it. It was tough on all of us. Through that we always understood he wasn't going to feel sorry for himself. He was going to get to a point where he was going to be able to walk. He always had goals in mind and cared about the people he loved.
"We had to rally around him, make sure we could be there for him. When he passed away, I was at a basketball tournament. My mom had to muster up the strength to tell me. It was tough to go through a moment like that, him being the rock of our family, but it made us all step up."
And Heyward continues to step up. He has immersed himself in the Pittsburgh community, doing multiple things to honor his father. He has a 'Pittsburgh is Stronger than Cancer' t-shirt to raise funds for research and helping families deal with hardships, as well as 'Craig's Closet,' one of the foundation's main endeavors that is a true testament to his father.
The idea of 'Craig's Closet' started when his dad arrived at the University of Pittsburgh as a freshman running back with one suit, something he was grateful to at least have coming from a single-parent home with six siblings. There are many young men currently in Pittsburgh area facing the same type of battle, many that don't even have that one suit they can wear to a job interview, or a college recruiting trip, or anywhere. 'Craig's Closet' helps provide them with suits.
"It's very important to me," said Heyward. "The idea came from my dad. When he grew up, he only had one suit. A lot of his friends didn't have suits at all. This is a creative way we thought of to give back to the community and help prepare young men for jobs, or homecoming, moving forward in life. You never know how much a suit can help present yourself.
"He cared about a lot of people, he cared about kids. Having a suit prepares you for the next part of your journey.
"We're just trying to prepare these kids for the future, helping out any way. Whether it's taking your girlfriend out for a nice dinner and you just want to show her how you present yourself. Or if you are getting ready for a job and you understand you want to look sharp and present yourself well, this is your opportunity."
Heyward said when he arrived at the Steelers he learned about giving back from the players who came before him, including Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith. Choosing to focus on cancer research this year was easy for him. But dealing with a parent who has or had cancer, is never easy.
"It's a tough toll to go through it the first round, let alone go through it the second round," said Heyward. "It takes a burden on a family and is nothing I would wish on anybody.
"Everybody goes through it differently. I was more reserved, kept to myself after it happened. I had a good support system around me that helped me."
Cause: Vance McDonald Foundation
Over a year ago Vance McDonald purchased a 130-acre farm in Ligonier Township, and he did so with a few ideas in mind. First and foremost was a place for him and his wife to raise their young family long-term.
The other important aspect was to use it for the Vance McDonald Foundation, and he is working on making that happen and that is why his cleats are representing his foundation and the work his family does.
McDonald's goal with the foundation is to use the farm as a place for rest and relaxation for faith-based leaders in the community, something of course delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are setting out to help Pittsburgh by helping out its leaders and people who just pour out their energy, efforts and lives into fortifying others, picking up others and serving others," said McDonald. "We are reserving the place for a sanctuary and a place of respite for those leaders. We will host them, allow them to stay and enjoy some beautiful scenery so they can get away from their jobs and be able to refill so whenever they go back they will be able to pour into others.
"We'll be doing church leaders, pastors, and people in leadership positions of churches in the Pittsburgh area. Also people in non-profits who are almost competing against each other, but they all set out to do the same thing and that is serve other people and make a difference. We have come to love Pittsburgh and we hate to see people set out to do great things and just get burnt out because there is no rest. We want to provide a place for those people who have these incredible missions and all of their efforts and energy go into helping other people and serving other people. We want to provide a place for rest for them and make them rest. We're real excited to get it going."
McDonald is thankful the NFL has given players the opportunity to share what they are passionate about in such a public setting.
"I think everyone is crying for a microphone at some point during their day and to have this one on such a big stage, especially when you are doing it for the right reasons, it's really cool," said McDonald. "There are a lot of great things being showcased that fall behind the scenes. It's cool to have that week that you get to showcase what you are passionate about."
Cause: Special Operations Warrior Foundation
As a former Army Ranger, Alejandro Villanueva knows the sacrifices those in the military make. And he knows many of them sadly make the ultimate sacrifice, often times leaving behind families, from young children to college age kids.
While there are hundreds of charities out there supporting the military, there is one that has really touched Villanueva. It's the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an organization that supports some of the military's most elite forces who are often called upon for the most dangerous missions.
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation provides support for families of severely wounded and fallen forces, focusing mainly on providing educational aid to the surviving children of special operations personnel who lost their lives in the line of duty. The foundation also provides immediate financial grants to severely combat-wounded and hospitalized special operations personnel and their families.
"The way that the war has been fought over the past seven years has relied heavily on special operations forces," said Villanueva. "They brunt a little more than their share of the fight than the rest of the units. That community is very small.
"I think what the foundation is doing is pretty remarkable. I know people on the board, it's a well-run organization, the way they spend their money and allocate their funds is well done.
"I have always been in contact with the special operations community. They have been unbelievable to me. I feel extremely humbled to have been a part of them and obviously to still be welcome with open arms."
Villanueva is hoping by wearing the cleats and bringing the organization to the forefront that it does nothing but help them, and in turn help those who have given so much for our country.
"It's an organization that doesn't spend a lot of money advertising themselves. The money goes the right way," said Villanueva. "They are spending as much as they can on the families of the victims, on sons and daughters of soldiers who have lost their lives, kids that might not be able to go to college. It's a very cool organization. I love the people who run it and what they stand for. At the same time, it gives the recognition to the families and the victims of the foreign wars that people aren't hearing about on the news because the war has taken a step back."