When Suzy Roth got off the phone after hearing that NFL players wanted to partner with her organization and treat foster children to a shopping spree, the first thing she did was look up the team’s phone number to find out if it was for real.
“I thought, I cannot line up kids in foster care to go shop with Colts and find out it’s some practical joke or something,” Roth recalled recently from Indianapolis. “Like, when does that happen that someone just calls up and wants to help kids in foster care?”
It turned out Roth didn’t know about Vontae Davis.
Before Davis became a player the Bills’ defense will count on, before he was a top-ranked cornerback recruit or a first-round draft pick, Davis was nearly placed in foster care, too.
Davis was a caregiver by the time he reached middle school. His mother battled drug addiction and his father faced alcoholism. That left Vontae and older brother Vernon to care for their five younger siblings. When Davis was 11, Child Protective Services nearly placed the siblings in separate foster homes before their grandmother, Adaline, took them all in.
So once Roth got in touch with the Colts’ community relations department and started to learn more about Davis, it all made sense. He was the perfect person to work with the kids at Hands of Hope Adoption and Orphan Care Ministry.
“There were times I had to provide, at 11 years old, and cook for my siblings, my little sisters, and take them to school, make sure they had clothes to wear,” Davis said. “I was the caretaker while my mother wasn’t really around. It was a lot for an 11-year-old kid.
“If it wasn’t for my grandmother, my siblings probably would’ve been separated and put up for adoption and gone to different foster homes. So that’s where the passion comes from helping foster kids because of my situation.”
The first event Davis helped with was a Christmas shopping spree. He and former Colts safety LaRon Landry put up the money for foster kids to spend $200 each on anything they wanted. The event was so successful that it continued in future years and spread to the entire Colts’ secondary.
Davis also wanted to get foster kids to Colts games. He was never able to attend an NFL game until Vernon got drafted by the 49ers and could only imagine what it would’ve been like to get free tickets from a pro.
“For an NFL guy to come in and show love to these kids, it can be life-changing,” Davis said. “If I was young and I was able to go an NFL game and do things as far as Christmas shopping that my biological parents weren’t able to do with me, it would’ve changed my life.”
Roth and Davis recalled a number of stop-you-in-your-tracks moments that kids shared with them during events.
One boy who got to come to a game through Hands of Hope mentioned that he was excited because it was his birthday. He had never celebrated a birthday before.
Another child who posed for a photo with Davis during a shopping spree kept the picture on his foster mom’s fridge for four years because it gave him something in his life to look back on and be proud of.
And at one game, a foster child talked about committing suicide. A chaperone was able to get him the help he needed.
“Kids who feel loved and appreciated, it changes their whole perspective,” Davis said. “Some of these stories you hear are mind-blowing.”
Roth wondered what would become of the Christmas shopping spree after the Colts cut Davis last November. So she called the team again and received another pleasant surprise: Davis had grown the event so much that the entire group of defensive backs was going to come and make sure the event lived on.
“For Vontae to do this, or really any professional football player, was really cool because these are the kids who are kind of almost forgotten,” said Roth, who is Hands of Hope's executive director. “They just have had such hard things happen in their lives. It makes them feel so special, so valued. Like somebody really cares about them.”
Davis, 29, is on a one-year deal with the Bills and hasn’t secured living arrangements yet, but he said he’d like to set up something similar in Buffalo.
“He is no longer in Indianapolis but he has built that legacy of the some of these Colts players caring for these kids who are really the most vulnerable children in our society,” Roth said. “And I think it’s so cool that he has kind of created this culture now where they are valued.
"I love that. I love that the defensive backs picked that up. That’s his legacy now. Hopefully he’ll do that in Buffalo. You guys are fortunate to have him.”