- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

At one point during yesterday’s fund-raising effort for Hurricane Katrina victims, members of the D.C. United and Washington Nationals were jockeying for position to see who could get the most donors to drive up to them.

You can’t take the competition out of the players. And you didn’t have to look very far for their hearts yesterday either.

Players from the Nationals, United, Wizards and Mystics were stationed in Lot 8 at RFK yesterday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. They took money to assist the victims of the devastation that changed the landscape of the Gulf Coast and perhaps the image of America as well.

It has been a frightening image to view for the past two weeks — parts of the most powerful nation in the world reduced to such helplessness. But not hopelessness. No, no. Americans all over the country, in small offices and in locker rooms and all sorts of other places of work and play, have taken matters into their own hands by mobilizing perhaps the greatest fund-raising relief effort the world has ever seen.

Ivory Brown, a U.S. Postal Service worker and girls’ basketball coach at Holton Arms in Bethesda, came by to drop off a donation from himself and his co-workers.

“We collected about $1,250, and I came by to drop it off,” Brown said. “It was a small drop in the bucket, but if everyone puts a drop in the bucket, it will overflow. The country has responded so well.”

Washington’s professional athletic community has been very much a part of that response. We’ve heard about the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas driving to D.C. Armory and delivering more than $18,000 worth of supplies for victims and his resolve to do much more. The Wizards will hold a fund-raising lunch at MCI Center on Tuesday, where for $5 fans can get a hot dog, chips and soda and meet Wizards coaches and players, with the money going to hurricane victims.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder has announced he will donate $500,000 to help Katrina victims. Yesterday while standing in the parking lot and taking donations, Nationals outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson was awaiting the arrival of 300 Nike duffel bags he purchased for Katrina victims housed at the nearby armory to keep their belongings in.

Sports remain one of the few unifying forces in American culture, bringing an increasingly isolated society together. Fortunately, we have not become so polarized that tragedy doesn’t also unify people. Both forces were at work yesterday in Lot8 at RFK Stadium, as athletes raised $35,000 for hurricane victims.

“This drive demonstrates the character of the D.C. sports community,” said Linda Mathes, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross National Capital Area Chapter.

In the world of professional sports, there are often charitable endeavors that are strictly for show, with the motivation more geared toward raising images than raising money.

No one knows for sure what is in a person’s heart, but this time seems different. There are too many people, whether on a major league roster or behind the desk at the local post office, who have been touched directly or indirectly by the Gulf Coast tragedy.

For instance, the person who took Ivory Brown’s donation was Murriel Page, a forward for the Washington Mystics who has family in Bay Springs, Miss.

“They have no power or telephone service there,” she said. “It makes me feel good to see people stopping here and giving. It is unfortunate that a disaster like this has to happen for people to go out of their way to give to help others, but it is a wonderful thing. People care about each other in America. We’re just trying to do our part to help.”

Nationals catcher Keith Osik has a pretty good connection to New Orleans. Before being called up to Washington, Osik played for the organization’s Class AAA club in that city, the Zephyrs, and was among the players and families evacuated by the team the day before the storm hit.

“It was pretty scary, to know it was barreling down on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast,” he said. “We were fortunate to get out in time. Those people were fighting for their lives down there, trying to survive with no food or water, and I think what everyone has been doing to help is great.”

You didn’t have to leave New Orleans or have family in the ravaged region, though, to feel connected. If you read a newspaper or watched any television the last two weeks, the stories being told demanded a reaction.

“I watched it for a week straight,” Wilkerson said. “It got so bad that I couldn’t really watch it anymore. It was such a sad situation to see American lives being taken and homes being taken. Hopefully, with the country coming together, we can help those people come out of this.”

At one point during the fund-raising, Nationals pitchers Chad Cordero and Hector Carrasco went out to the street and started waving a red flag to get people to come into the parking lot and give.

District resident Lewis Smith responded by driving in and making a donation. “It’s good to see these guys out here doing this,” Smith said. “It is good to see the community come together, sports figures and regular people, black and white.”

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