One of the first things I experienced when I started teaching a dozen years ago was how to handle behavior in the classroom. College prepared me for teaching my core subjects, but dealing with behavioral issues was a baptism by fire.
Did I want to spend all my time dealing with the five percent of the class that had behavior issues, virtually ignoring the 95 percent of the class who wanted to be there and do well in school? It took some time, but eventually I discovered that by focusing on the good that happened in the classroom, the bad behavior eventually sorted itself out because they saw the attention that the good students were getting.
The relationship between the NFL and the media sits in stark contrast to this.
When you think about the highlights of the NFL offseason, what stories come to mind?
There’s Plaxico Burress’ career going to waste over a firearms mishap in a New York nightclub. There’s Donte Stallworth’s DUI, which resulted in a tragic accident and the death of a pedestrian. There’s Michael Vick’s return to the NFL after his exodus on dog-fighting charges.
And then there’s the saga that is Brett Favre. A Favre indecision story is almost synonymous with "death and taxes." You just know it’s going to happen.
These stories paint a dark picture of the NFL player. Casual fans may think the league is full of self-centered, egotistical jerks. Do these types of players exist? Of course they do.
But it’s only about five percent of the league.
A vast majority of the players in the league are—just like a majority of people in society—good people. There are plenty of players who do charity events, give generous donations, or volunteer time. Some even do little things that may not seem like much to them, but mean so much to others.
Take the case of Ryan Lilja, who plays guard for the Indianapolis Colts.
As long as I’ve been teaching, the small school I work at has collected items that are donated to a local charity called We Care. We Care auctions items off and the profits are used to clothe need children in our county, one of the poorest in the state.
A few years ago, I decided that maybe we could earn more money if we started a collection of NFL autographs. My class would write players to ask for an autograph and our collection was then donated to We Care.
In 2007, we concentrated on only obtaining Colts’ autographs, since they are our local team. We greatly appreciated the autographs we got back from players like Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday, head coach Tony Dungy, and even owner Jim Irsay. But we didn’t get one from Lilja.
The 2007 We Care auction was a distant memory when I got a small letter in my mailbox. It was a little note, written on a piece of stationary from some small college. It was from Lilja. He was apologizing that he had just found our note. He seemed upset that he had missed our deadline. He offered that if there was anything we needed, all we had to do was ask. Then, he gave me his email address.
It’s one thing to apologize; maybe another to give a fleeting offer of help, but then by giving his e-mail address, I felt Lilja was being genuine. At the time, though, I thought nothing more than a nice gesture and put the letter in my desk drawer.
Thankfully, I’m a pack-rat.
In the fall of 2008, we were getting ready to start our fall letter-writing campaign when the remnants of Hurricane Ike came sweeping through Southern Indiana. A hurricane in Indiana? Seriously? Well, it was serious enough to knock the power out in the county and close school for an entire week.
By the time we recovered from that and surviving the state’s mandatory testing, it was October and we were in jeopardy of not having enough time to hear back from any players before the auction date.
And then I remembered the letter. Thankfully, it was still safely tucked inside my desk right beside some mints I’m sure I got in my first year of teaching.
I took a chance and emailed Lilja, explaining our predicament. Within a day, I had a response. Lilja was all too happy to help. We sent in a football and Lilja signed it, along with nine more of his teammates. Lilja and I exchanged a few e-mails and I thanked him once the ball arrived. All the time, Lilja was friendly and eager to help.
Hey, I even became a hero in the classroom. Their teacher was emailing a real NFL player!
The ball auctioned for $200. Thanks to Lilja, the money raised helped clothe three or four more kids in our community. Some of the students that received clothing were in my own class. A small gesture by Lilja touched the lives of everyone in my class, and everyone who received clothes because of the time he took to help.
Lilja ended up missing the entire 2008 season due to injury. He’s back for 2009 and he may have a little fan club going into this season.
Last week, one of the students from that class came up to me. He said that his father had read where Lilja was back and eager to play after missing 2008.
“I’m glad he’s back, “ said the student, “He’s such a nice guy.”
That he is.