Sometimes, a small gesture can have a big impact.
That’s true of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign, which is now in its second year. By relaxing its draconian dress-code rules for a week, the league has not only allowed players to express themselves, but also has given them an opportunity to raise awareness for the causes that are closest to their hearts.
“This is a great way to allow guys to express themselves, show some of the good they're doing in the community,” Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood said. “Everybody focuses so much on the negative attention, you know, one guy gets arrested in the offseason ... but that doesn't define all of us. This sheds some light on guys in this league doing incredible things.”
More than 25 members of the Bills will wear customized cleats during Sunday’s game, each telling a different story. Here are some of the best.
A collaborative effort
Wood, rookie offensive tackle Dion Dawkins and middle linebacker Preston Brown visited the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital to ask patients to help them design their cleats.
“It’s been a really cool experience for me getting to spend some time with the kids,” Wood said. “They brought in some really talented artists who were local to help the kids design them. I've been rocking them this week in practice and got a lot of compliments on them.”
The kids who helped design their cleats presented them to players following a walk-thru practice last week, and will be in attendance Sunday and on the field before the game. The team’s official website, buffalobills.com, produced a touching video of the players working on the design with the kids, the production of the cleats, and then the presentation.
“I'm just thankful to be in the position that I'm in that kids would want to help design my cleats,” Dawkins said. “I was jittery when I was there. Those kids were so happy, and for everything they're going through, they always had a smile on their face.”
Dawkins’ cleats feature stick-figure drawings holding hands along one side, with the hospital on the heel. The cleats were produced by local artist Jacob Marquart of Signature Kickz.
“We let them create whatever they wanted to,” Dawkins said. “They came out looking really cool.”
In loving memory
Fullback Patrick DiMarco lost both of his grandfathers in the last year – one to leukemia and one to pancreatic cancer – so his cleats will support the American Cancer Society.
“The DeMarco side of my family, so my dad's side, always supported the American Cancer Society,” he said. “My uncle, granddad, dad are all on the board for my uncle's golf tournament which supports the American Cancer Society, so that's near and dear to our hearts, especially now after my grandathers passing.”
One of DiMarco’s cleats is purple and one is orange, leading some teammates to joke that the South Carolina graduate lost a bet to Clemson product Shaq Lawson.
“I'm pumped. I'm really excited to support them and honor them, he said. “When I opened the box and I saw the cleats for the first time I got a little emotional just because it was so recent, 6 months and 9 months. Last time I saw them they were on their deathbeds so it was tough. My mom's dad, Samuel, he played football in college. He coached the game. So it was kind of our bond. We always talked football.
“My other granddad, Richard, my dad's dad, he went through stage 5 pancreatic cancer. I know he was just a fighter throughout it and stayed positive. He was like the ultimate competitor in everything he did whenever we did anything. So it’s kind of like the heart of my pop and the competitiveness of my grandpa, so I 'm excited to wear these things.”
Offensive lineman Ryan Groy’s cause is Operation Second Chance, No Person Left Behind.
“The organization is for veterans and disabled veterans. The section that I'm representing – No Person Left Behind – is for disabled veterans who have passions for hunting, fishing, the outdoors, and gets them out of the care centers, out of their homes, and clears their mind,” he said. “It's something that helps them get through the tough times and realize that they can get back to doing something that they love.”
Groy is an avid outdoorsman, a love that was passed down from his late father, Doug.
“I've very passionate about it,” he said. “I think it's so important for veterans that have given so much, to give back to them and help them clear their minds is priceless. It’s something that my dad loved. Everything at his funeral we donated to Operation Second Chance, No Person Left behind, and I've been doing the same.
“Everybody's got something different that they believe in and want to support and it's a great way to get that out there. We have amazing platforms being professional athletes. It's a great way for us to promote great foundations.”
Several players are supporting their own foundations, including safety Micah Hyde. The IMagINe For Youth Foundation, which Hyde started as a college project in 2013, provides children with sporting goods and money to participate in both athletic and academic programs. The child of a single mother, Hyde particularly has a passion of helping similar families.
“It hits home for me,” Hyde told the team's website. “When I was growing up, my brother, my sister and myself – my mom was a single parent and we were doing a lot of traveling. I played football, basketball, baseball, soccer. My sister had her own sports, my brother had his own stuff. A lot of the stuff we couldn’t afford to do; it was a lot on my mom.
"The idea behind this is that we’ll be the person to help kids and single parents and families … If kids want to join sports, need equipment and to travel. It started off as my class project, but once I had my camp last summer and I did a backpack drive here earlier in the year, we’re doing stuff in other states, it’s opened up. We have a staff now and everyone’s participating. It’s just a blessing.”
Honoring a loved one
Rookie wide receiver Zay Jones’ cause is support for the American Alzheimer’s Association.
“My grandmother, it's something that she's battling,” he said. “She doesn't remember me that much, so it's hard. But I love her very much and I know that she's the same person deep down inside, so it's something that I'm honoring her with.”
Jones’ entire family has been impacted by seeing what his “nonny” has gone through over the last couple years.
“When I was younger she knew me. She could tell us all apart really easily. As I got older she struggled with it a little bit more. So it just got hard. She could look at us, but she just doesn't know us anymore,” he said.“It's difficult. To see my mother, watching her go through that with her mom, that's probably the hardest part, but we try to cherish each moment. I'm up here, so I don't get to see her that often. I try to Facetime her. I’ll Facetime my grandpop. My grandpop visits her each day. It's just something that I carry with me.”
Even coach Sean McDermott is getting into the act. He will wear sneakers on the sideline for food allergy awareness, which impacts his family.
“We’re in this together,” McDermott told the team’s website. “We know a lot of families are experiencing this with their kids and it’s a challenge for them, as it’s been for us, but we’re able to get through it. If there’s anything more we can do to help find a cure, I’m glad to do that.”
After Sunday’s game, several of the Bills will auction off their cleats on the NFL auction website (nflauction.nfl.com), with proceeds raised going to their charity of choice.
“All that money goes to helping kids and their families here in Western New York,” Wood said. “We're all here for the greater good of families here in Western New York. It's been a really fun ride. It adds some value to a career outside of playing ball, making money, trying to win football games. It gives some added meaning.”