ASHBURN — “Backpedal. Backpedal. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle!”
Wes Martin was clapping and encouraging kids Sunday as they raced to complete a cone drill on the turf at the Redskins’ indoor practice facility. The rookie left guard was spending a day off as a Special Olympics volunteer, helping children with physical and developmental disabilities participate in football activities.
Drafted just three months ago, the former Indiana University standout has already become a regular at events set up by the team’s charitable foundation.
“It’s great to have something besides football to be passionate about, to devote your time and energy toward,” said the former Hoosier, who also has his own dog-rescue program.
Martin, a fourth-round pick expected to help shore up the team’s offensive line, is the latest in a long line of Redskins, Nationals and Wizards giving their time and using their celebrity to make a difference.
From newcomers like Martin to stars like Bradley Beal, Elena Delle Donne and Anthony Rendon, Washington athletes say giving back is more than just the right way to be a pro athlete — it’s who they are as people.
Close to the heart
Brian Dozier wanted to get away.
After proposing to his now-wife Renee in 2014, the Nationals second baseman thought it would be a good idea to take a trip before their marriage. “I was thinking pina coladas on the beach or something,” he said. His fiance had a different idea.
That year, the couple went to Nicaragua — volunteering for the organization “Amigos for Christ,” helping the poor gain access to clean water. That vacation started a tradition, and the Doziers continue to do missionary work.
It puts life in perspective, he said.
“Obviously you can always give monetarily and stuff — which we do — but at the same time you also want to do hands-on stuff too and actually work and actually use your labor and do some stuff,” Dozier said.
Beyond Dozier, the Nationals have several players making a difference. Ace Max Scherzer matches donations made to the D.C.-based Humane Rescue Alliance, a group that finds owners for homeless pets. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman and his foundation have raised $3.5 million over the last 13 years to battle multiple sclerosis.
In 2017, third baseman Anthony Rendon raised more than $135,000 to help with Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston.
Rendon lives in Houston during the offseason, and the storm’s impact hit close to home. Literally.
“It’s definitely different when you see your own people, you see your family members, you see your friends struggling,” Rendon said. “We passed along the money to organizations that we knew would have their heart in the right spot and actually help those individuals.”
Rendon, who is famously tight-lipped around reporters, also works with underprivileged kids. He skipped the All-Star Game this year due to some nagging injuries, spending the day instead at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy playing ball with young scholar-athletes.
“You don’t help out people just so you can get yourself a pat on the back,” he said, “You do it because you want to do it out of the kindness of your heart.”
Time and effort
Rendon shuns the press when it comes to talking about what’s happening on and off the field. But that’s just not Josh Norman’s style.
Like Rendon, the Redskins cornerback is involved — really involved — in giving back. He’s helping build a Boys and Girls Club center in his hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina. He’s also spent time this offseason helping migrants and asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border and delivered bottled water to Flint, Michigan, residents.
Athletes’ charitable efforts, he told reporters recently, don’t get enough attention.
“It (doesn’t) even get brought up … and even if something gets put out there, it gets put to the side because something negative got to come out,” the outspoken Redskins star said. “It’s sad.”
Is there some irony in a football player complaining about lack of coverage for charitable efforts while reporters take notes? Sure, but the NFL veteran is mostly right about the media’s focus.
Recognition from peers
During the Wizards’ season, observers discussed Bradley Beal’s minutes on the court more than they did his season-long mentoring at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School.
Beal, though, was eventually recognized for his work — winning the NBA Cares Community Assist Award in June for his work with local community groups and RBHS students — including surprising the school’s basketballs teams after practice and taking students on a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“We’re all basketball players and we all have a platform,” Beal said at the NBA Awards show last month. “If there’s one message I can encourage everybody, man, please, please let’s give back to the youth. They need us. They’re the future.”
In for the long haul
Often, an athlete’s involvement in a cause is far from a one-time event. Redskins long snapper Nick Sundberg, for instance, has worked closely with several schools over the last two years to help provide an in-school laundry service for students through his “Loads of Love” program.
Capitals winger T.J. Oshie and his family raise money to fight Alzheimer’s disease — an issue that affects more than 5.3 million people, including Oshie’s father, Tim.
Mystics star Elena Delle Donne is involved in fighting a disease that affects her personally, too. She’s been battling Lyme disease since 2008, leading her to start her own foundation in 2016.
She said her inspiration has always been her sister Lizzie, who has dealt with cerebral palsy and autism.
“I just think it’s so important when you have a platform to do something with it and I feel like, my whole life, especially I felt like I’ve always been a voice for my sister and she’d want me to so this. She’s sort of always been my guiding light, my inspiration to do really good and do something in the community that can make an impact.”
Winning off the field
Getting an athlete involved in giving back is important, says Leigh Steinberg, a long-tenured agent who represents Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Steinberg calls it a “great learning experience” for his clients.
“Instead of being self-absorbed, they get out of themselves,” Steinberg said. “It teaches them skills that are nonathletic so that they’re involved with people in their community. That helps them. They’re involved with setting up a program.”
“The enemy of athletes is self-absorption,” Steinberg said. “You’re also developing the skills you need for a second career.”
Former Redskins safety Kyshoen Jarrett knows better than anyone how football can suddenly end. In the final week of the 2015 season, Jarrett suffered severe nerve damage on a helmet-to-helmet hit — ending his career.
Now a defensive quality control coach with the Redskins, Jarrett makes sure to spend some of his time outside of work giving back.
He especially appreciated Sunday’s event as his older brother, Daishoen, deals with cerebral palsy and blindness.
“To see the joy on parents’ faces and as well as the kids’ faces, it helped me throughout my transition from player to coach,” he said. “Especially during the up-and-down times.
“To be able to come out here and just, like, be selfless,” Jarrett said. “You know, just give your heart to these kids because this is what they look forward to.”