by Greg Burton
I already know who the Super Bowl MVP will be.
At the conclusion of Super Bowl XLVIII, the media will vote on the Most Valuable Player. This reporter has already awarded his Super Bowl MVP-Most Valuable People- to Richmond natives Russell Wilson and Michael Robinson. RVA (as we refer to our city) could not have two better men representing Richmond.
If you looking for a rundown of their season statistics or quotes regarding Sunday’s game, you may want to skip over to ESPN.com. I’d simply like to tell you about two guys who care about helping people and are determined to make an impact far beyond the football field.
Michael Robinson grew up in Richmond’s rough East End. For kids in this part of city, graduating from high school isn’t a given. Robinson graduated from Varina High School, with honors, and earned a football scholarship to Penn State. Nittany Lion fans often laud Robinson for being the Big Ten Player of the Year and leading them to the 2005 Orange Bowl title. His bigger accomplishment at Penn State: graduating in three years with an advertising/public relation degree and then earning a second degree in journalism.
The 30 year old has used football to make his life better. Now, he is using football to make other people’s lives better. Robinson created the Excel to Excellence Foundation, dedicated to providing educational programs and facilities to under-served communities. Each summer, the eight year NFL veteran returns to Richmond with some of his teammates to host a free football clinic with a unique twist. The on-field instruction is accompanied by off-field classroom work, teaching kids real-life skills and preparing them for higher education whether it’s college or a mastering a skill that will lead to a professional career.
Just this week, his foundation launched an even more innovative program. Team Excel is an educational program geared towards 9th graders at Robinson’s alma mater Varina High School. Think of it as reverse fantasy football. Robinson, some of his NFL teammates and other community leaders will “draft” students, who earn points each week for academic performance, attendance and community service. Robinson’s ultimate goal is to construct a learning center where youth can get educational assistance, guidance and counseling year round. In an interview last week on my radio show, Robinson talked about why he looks for new ways to help kids in his hometown.
“My goal when I got to the NFL was always to show the kids that’s walked down the same hallways at Varina, that’s dealt with the same drug dealers in Church Hill, Fulton and Highland Park and those areas, that you can do it. I walked those streets, I encountered those same distractions, you can do it. I’m from the same city so as long as you keep believing, keep God first and keep believing and make sure your school work is first, you can do it.”
Russell Wilson always knew he could do it. His father knew he could do it. It just took the rest of us some convincing. We should have seen it. Always mature for his age, Wilson was groomed for the Super Bowl spotlight by his late father, a former NFL player. He has also been prepared for the responsibility and obligation that goes with being an NFL superstar. When he was a high school junior at Richmond’s Collegiate School, he had an idea for a football camp for inner city kids. After his rookie NFL season, the Russell Wilson Passing Academy was launched in five cities: Richmond; Raleigh, North Carolina (where he attended NC State); Madison, Wisconsin (where he attended University of Wisconsin); Spokane and Seattle, Washington (Seahawks country);. He decided to give back to all the communities who had played a role in his development as a player and a person.
Wilson has also taken it upon himself to make weekly visits to the Children’s Hospital in Seattle. The team didn’t set it up. It wasn’t part of a Seahawks community outreach program. He just showed up one day and said, “I’d like to talk to some of the patients, if that’s ok.”
I’ve heard people lament that you can’t teach that, the kind of generosity, kindness and sense of obligation Wilson and Robinson display. I disagree. Yes, both of these men have an innate sense of service but they were also molded by strong role models in their lives, who instilled in them the belief that playing football is a privilege. If football leads to a better life, then it is your responsibility to use your place to pull others up.
There are many professional athletes, many of them quietly and out of the spotlight, who make the same impact in their community like Wilson and Robinson have. We, in the media, have to do a better job of highlighting these stories, spreading the word about players who care more about others than themselves. Hopefully, that will motivate more athletes to comprehend the power they have in their communities and the lasting impact they can make by playing a more active role in the development of the next generation.
I have known Russell Wilson and Michael Robinson since I covered them in high school. They are grown men now yet, still the same people. Their football talent was evident at a young age but so was their character. When they take the field Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII, I will root like hell for them because, win or lose, they will not change. They’ll return to Richmond during the off-season to help kids and make communities better.
Players say “the ring is the thing.” Make no mistake: Wilson and Robinson desperately want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy Sunday. The same drive that has powered them to this point in their careers will continue to fuel their determination to impact lives long after the cheering stops.
Greg Burton, an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Sport Leadership, has been a sportscaster for 23 years, the last 15 in Richmond. He hosts a daily sports talk radio show on ESPN 950. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @hardlyworkin950