By Ian Massey
Quick! Who won the Butkus Award last season? … (BUZZER sounds!). If you didn’t guess Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly or didn’t read ahead, you’re like many Americans. But when it comes to the Heisman Trophy, quite a few more of you might ring in with “Who is Robert Griffin III, Alex?”
Luke Kuechly, now on the Carolina Panthers, amassed 532 career tackles over his collegiate career. He came just 16 tackles shy of Tim McGaricle’s NCAA FBS record, which was set over a full four season career; Kuechly tallied 532 in three seasons. On the field, Kuechly was a menace at BC. Off it, he was a gentleman.
A friend of mine at Boston College recently told me that Kuechly sat behind her in an economics class last year. Despite kicking the back of her chair accidentally a few times with his long legs, she said he was a great guy, once grabbing her cell phone and hollering at her as she left the lecture without her device.
“Luke is the most impressive student-athlete I have met,” Boston College Dean Andrew Boynton said of Kuechly, a Management major. “What strikes me, and everyone, about Luke are: his values, maturity, integrity and modesty.”
As Nick Clancy, Kuechly’s Boston College teammate last year, put it, “He’s the guy that you want to hire for a babysitter for your kids. He’s just a great guy, great person, great character, and I think that [translates] into how he plays.”
“He’s a coach’s dream,” Boston College Head Coach Frank Spaziani added. “The guy works hard, plays hard. He loves football. He wants to get better. And he has instincts. He does a lot of good things.”
So it came as no surprise when the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation awarded Kuechly with the Lott IMPACT Trophy last December, embodying the characteristics of USC and 49ers Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott: Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.
A surplus of hardware is handed out to collegiate football players each year from the Doak Walker Award to the Rimington Trophy, but none other than the Lott IMPACT Trophy considers character as a requirement for greatness.
Today we’re consumed by the latest and greatest. College football is just as guilty as any other sport that we shower with adoration. Ratings are a likely scapegoat. Networks need our viewership, so they replay the same story about John Elway’s desire to bench Tim Tebow or Carmelo Anthony’s lack of respect for Jeremy Lin, while avoiding the heartwarming story – Tim Tebow tossing a football with a Make-A-Wish child with no cameras in sight, hours after his team was knocked out of Super Bowl contention. (Tebow takes 10-Year-Old Girl on Her First Date http://thestir.cafemom.com/sports/133713/tim_tebow_takes_deserving_10yearold). We often forget to humanize these people and glorify their deeds along with their athletic accomplishments.
Take Twitter for instance: When San Francisco 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams muffed a punt that likely cost his team a chance at the Super Bowl last winter, he received death threats via social media (Huffington Post article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/kyle-williams-death-threats-49ers-giants_n_1223655.html). One Tweeter called for the rape and murder of Williams’ wife and kids, despite the fact that the Niners’ returner is single without children.
The Heisman Trophy is annually awarded to the nation’s best collegiate football player, voted on by journalists, past winners, and even one vote is dedicated to the fans via an ESPN.com survey.
However, character rarely factors into the award’s selection process. After failing a drug test and receiving a one-game suspension last October, Louisiana State University defensive back Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu was still a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in December. His suspension came before votes were tallied. For further reading on Heisman hopeful misfits, search Maurice Clarrett on Wikipedia.
Last November, when Mathieu surged onto the national spotlight with bleached blonde hair and playmaking skills not seen since Deion Sanders, the Lott IMPACT Trophy tossed around the idea of including Mathieu as a semifinalist for the award. The idea was quickly shot down by the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation’s Board of Directors because of Mathieu’s suspension, and possibly, for his inability to string together a respectable sentence in his postgame press conferences. Because when it comes time to award a player based on not just interceptions, but community service hours and grade-point-average, you start to narrow down the list to a handful of players annually who measure up to the example that Ronnie Lott set for future generations. Prior to the 2012 season, Mathieu was dismissed from LSU for further violation of drug policies. PR nightmare averted.
Each April, the Lott IMPACT Trophy publishes a list of 42 candidates that are considered the foundation’s watch list. At the end of the year, one school’s general scholarship fund receives a $25,000 donation from the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation.
A good test of whether a player should be considered or not is whether giving $25,000 back to his university based on his performance on and off the field would prove to be meaningful to the player. I tend to think that if Mathieu was willing to risk his team’s national title hopes in order to smoke a few doobies, he probably could care less about what $25,000 could do for his institution.
Guys like 2010 Lott IMPACT Trophy recipient JJ Watt do care. Watt is a force to be reckoned with, playing defensive end for the Houston Texans. I’d probably defecate in my drawers if he attempted to tackle me; he’s huge. But off the field, he’s a sweetheart. Watt, a former Wisconsin Badger, has his own foundation, encouraging fans to “Dream Big Work Hard.”
The Justin J. Watt foundation’s mission statement reads: “To provide after-school opportunities for children in the community to become involved in athletics, so that they may learn the basic character traits of accountability, teamwork, leadership, work ethic and perseverance while in a safe and supervised environment with their peers.”
In its ninth year, the Lott IMPACT Trophy has donated nearly $1 million to local and nationwide charities, including over $320,000 to universities. Past winners include David Pollack of Georgia in 2004, now hosting the Palmer and Pollack show on ESPN and serving as an ESPN analyst after suffering a career-ending injury in his second season with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006. In 2005, DeMeco Ryans won the trophy, later becoming the 2006 NFL’s defensive rookie of the year. Dante Hughes, of Mike Silver’s alma mater – Cal Berkeley, won the 2006 award, followed by LSU’s Glenn Dorsey in 2007, Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis in 2008, TCU’s Jerry Hughes in 2009, Wisconsin’s Watt in 2010, and BC’s Kuechly in 2011.
We’re mesmerized by the headlines, yet we overlook the great human-beings along the way like a cheerleader cheating off of a nerd’s homework without even a thank you. Just because Kuechly made just four tackles in his NFL debut, after averaging over 16 per game as a senior in college, doesn’t mean the kid should be forgotten.
Ask any Niners fan if they remember the tenacity of Lott exploding on receivers in the team’s heyday, and many will refer to him as the greatest safety of all time. But few know of Lott’s deeds off the field. USA Today referred to Lott as “one of the most successful athletes making the transition to business.” While Lott has continued to rake in the dough without putting his pads on, he has continued to fund local and national charities. In 1989 Lott founded All-Stars Helping Kids, a group that currently partners with New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley to assist in their philanthropic endeavors. According to the foundation’s website, for over 23 years, Lott’s program has raised over 20 million dollars to promote “a safe, healthy, and rigorous learning environment for disadvantaged children.”
Today we’d rather wish Tiger Woods luck on his road back from recovery after allegedly bedding a few dozen mistresses and losing his model wife, and boo Tim Tebow for running the wildcat in Jets attire and for thanking the lord a few thousand times too many per postgame presser.
It may be tough to focus on the upstanding citizens in collegiate and professional athletics when we’re constantly reminded of the Saints’ “bountygate” participants, the Jerry Sandusky case, and the blunders of replacement officials, but it puts things in perspective when we start to appreciate the players who have never faltered from the tunnel vision path which has never led them astray.
Kuechly and Watt are perfect examples of guys who play the game the right way and who conduct themselves maturely off the field, leading by example for their generation like Lott once did and continues to do.
On Saturday, December 9, the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation hopes to crown another upstanding citizen as the ninth Lott IMPACT Trophy recipient. Will it be the soft-spoken Notre Dame linebacker, Manti Te’o? Te’o is a team captain, and an Eagle Scout. He has overcome adversity in 2012, snatching three interceptions in the past two weeks after dealing with the death of his grandmother and girlfriend in the same month.
Or could it be Johnthan Banks? Banks is a Mississippi State cornerback who leads all active players in career interceptions. He put NFL riches on hold and returned for his senior season to spend more time with his toddler. There’s a USC Trojan – TJ McDonald, who took a trip to Haiti with teammates to help build homes for refugees, and Jordan Kovacs, a Michigan safety that hits the books hard and running backs even harder. (Complete list: http://www.lottimpacttrophy.com/news/article/-lott-impact-trophy-names-2012-watch-list).
There are plenty of great stories out there that don’t involve sexual abuse, cheating, and driving recklessly under the influence. Seek these stories out, and don’t be afraid to live by the qualities that the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation promotes with their acronym, IMPACT: Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.